Thank you No Boundaries for an inspirational, thought-provoking and connected couple of days. There have been so many great thoughts and ideas it will take a while to process them all and for them all to sink in but below are a few of the things that have inspired me about the conference and a few of the ideas that I now have because of it. I will probably expand on these a few more over the next few weeks but here is an over-view of some key points.
Possibly one of the most emotional pieces came from Kully Thiarai, Director of Cast in Doncaster. It was emotional for a few reasons. Having heard Kully speak before it felt like we were personally part of the journey that they had been on over the last year. It was amazing to see how far they had come and all of the wonderful things that they had achieved.
“It’s all about people and place – not buildings.”
Kully Thiarai, Director – Cast in Doncaster
“I was sitting downstairs having a coffee and some little 10 year old kids with skateboards came and pressed their noses up against the window and said ‘Mister, what’s this?’ and I said “It’s your theatre!” And they didn’t really know what a theatre was, so I told them. It’s out of those little moments that you know. Because that’s what I remember as a kid, someone taking the trouble to say: ‘Come and have a look at this’!”
Kevin Spence, Board Member, Cast
I was totally inspired and felt very emotional and close to tears watching the film from Cast in Doncaster, it actually made me well up and gave me a huge sense of belief in all of the ideas that I personally stand for. Arts and culture really can transform a city and the joined-up thinking by Doncaster and true inclusion of the community was incredible to watch. What an amazing journey they have come on in a year – my wish is that other Local Authorities and businesses would take their example and roll it our across the country. What an inspiring model and it proves that when we work together we truly can transform communities with the power of the arts and culture.
Censorship in the arts
This section was very alarming. With a number of shows hitting the headlines this year and being cancelled due to censorship issues it really is an area that we should all be concerned about.
“In my country artists fear for their lives. In the UK artists fear for their funding”
Natalia Kaliada, Belarus Free Theatre
“Pre-emptive censorship by the police is a clear infringement of civil liberties.”
Julia Farrington – Index on Censorship
So what can be done? What power do the police really have to stop a production from happening? I think that we need to find a better way of opening up communication with the police and unite as organisations to talk to them about any fears they may have. What we cannot do is stand by and allow our work to get censored because it “might upset someone”. I also worry that we are living in a culture where we have a tendency to self-censor as well. Some of this comes from having to twist and bend ourselves to fit certain tick-box criteria on funding applications. It’s a totally bonkers and backwards way of working that is completely soul destroying. Why can we not simply just produce good art? Why do we have to constantly fight and justify our existence in order to survive. Why do we bow down to the restriction imposed on us by funding bodies? Why do they presume that what they want is actually what is the best thing for our audiences – the people we are creating the work for? Maybe it’s time for a shake-up and to find new, more forward thinking ways of working. Perhaps a change in thinking is needed – but this has to come from the top and a big part of that is helping the Government to realise the true benefit of arts and culture. Not in financial terms. But in terms of good quality art. The benefits of arts and culture to towns and cities should be obvious for all to see without having to set criteria against them to measure them. Some of them are simply not measurable and again take away from the work itself. We are being forced to spend too much time ticking boxes and not enough time focussing on what is really important – making good art.
“Diversity is inviting someone to a party, inclusion is asking them to dance”
Possibly my favourite quote of the whole conference and John Dyer clearly highlighted that more needs to be done to promote diversity within our arts organisations. We think we are diverse but are we actually? How can we change this? How can we change years of ingrained thinking and ways of working. Of a culture where we instinctively recruit and work with other people who are similar to ourselves because of unconscious bias. It’s a big challenge to undertake but it needs to be done.
“We shouldn’t be frightened of a big idea just because it threatens our patch”
Maria Balshaw, Whitworth Art Gallery
A running theme of this conference was collaboration. It seems like an obvious thing but why don’t we all work together more? How much more could we achieve if all arts organisations across a city came together and opened their doors to each other? We seem to live in a culture that is very over-protective of our own ideas. We don’t want to share what we’re doing for the fear of someone stealing our ideas and doing it themselves. This culture needs to change. In Bath we have started breaking down these boundaries in a number of ways, and we’re by no means perfect but a few of our ideas are working and having a real benefit to the whole cultural sector in the city. Our organisation, Theatre Bath (not to be confused with the Theatre Royal) is a grass-roots organisation. We run very much from the bottom upwards. The ideas for the work that we do comes from the community around us and their suggestions. We are social media driven and it’s through that engagement with the people in Bath that most of our best ideas come. Through our conferences and open meetings and networking events we have helped organisations within Bath to open their doors to each other. Sure there is still much more that can be done but simple things like shows in different venues advertising in each others programmes, companies sharing props and sets, actors auditioning for each others shows have all helped to create a shared ecology which is of benefit to everyone. There can be some adversity to working together but it is worth battling through it and continually trying to push boundaries and make things better for everyone.
Does Size Matter?
According to Darren Henley of the Arts Council – yes it does. He commented that we should be focusing on bigger audiences. I disagree with this statement. In my opinion having large audiences is not as important as engaging with the right audiences. That’s the largest part of the battle. How many of us are making work with our target audience in mind when we work? Like it or not theatre in this country has a certain audience and until we find a way of changing that you could argue it would make sense to make work for the audience that is there. Certainly financial sense and let’s face it that’s what a lot of our friends in the commercial sector are doing. But what more can be done to connect with new audiences. When our stereotyped audience is no more then who will watch our work then?
I went to London a few weeks back to watch American Idiot – the Green Day Musical. It was loud and proud, the book was poor (as you unfortunately tend to expect with a jukebox musical) but the execution of the songs was brilliant. What struck me most about the audience for this show was that they were predominantly young people. A lot of them who looked like fans of the music. But the show had successfully broken down the normal boundaries of musical theatre and was engaging with a whole new audience and it was an amazing and inspiring thing to see. So perhaps alternative audiences are there… We just need to learn to talk to them and ask them what they want occasionally rather than telling them what they should see because we think that it is “worthy art”.
What Does Success Look Like?
“The message, whatever happens we go on, we adapt, we come back stronger… Is it possible to learn how to stop interfering? When is the right time to leave an organisation, especially one you’ve founded?”
David Lockwood, The Bike Shed Theatre
My favourite speech of the two days came from David Lockwood of the Bike Shed Theatre who have recently become a part of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio. His speech rang true in so many ways. “Is joining the club such a good thing?” The struggles of fitting in the time to complete the monstrous funding application forms of the Arts Council, perhaps to the detriment of the organisation in the short-term as your attention is distracted, to adapting to jump through some of the ridiculous hoops and red tape that they can set you. Perhaps the most poignant moment was his own personal reflections on his journey and where he goes from now. Thought was all have at some point or other – when is the right time to walk away and move on. David showed a self-awareness which other “cultural leaders” would be wise to learn from. Sometimes the best thing is to leave an organisation and move on – for yourself and the organisation’s future. It takes a very brave and honest person to be able to admit this and I applaud David for his openness.
“Are we living in a monastery or a public square?”
Vasif Kortun – Salt Gallery, Instanbul
A really interesting discussion about buildings and spaces. Are the spaces we work in actually a barrier to the work we create and the audiences were are trying to reach? Should more be done to break down the boundaries of these institutions and bring the work out to the public? One comment we have heard locally is that a child was part of a youth theatre here in Bath and her mum would always wait outside to pick her up. When the child was asked why she did this the reply was that the mum didn’t think she would fit-it in the theatre. She had no idea what was expected of her. How she should dress or look. The building in itself became a massive boundary to her personally. This is a real shame and we need to do more to open up our doors to the public and to people who feel uncomfortable with our elitist, grandiose organisations. I would like to see more open days, more events which these members of the public would feel comfortable attending. We need to make an effort to engage with people who are scared of crossing our thresholds.
Rebooting Museums – Cooper Hewitt Museum
WOW! That’s all I can say! When a cultural organisation just gets things soooo right. The inspiration behind the very simple idea of the Cooper Hewitt pen is something to behold. The way that the interactive pen has changed the way that people engage with the museum and exhibits is an incredible thing. It totally inspired me. I began thinking about things on a larger scale. What if ALL cultural organisations in a city signed up to a scheme like this. Using pens across venues and organisations to create a really unique visitor experience with content they can download and share at home. Everything about this museum was incredible. It was boundary breaking and it’s great to see a large cultural organisation not being afraid of innovation and forward-thinking. The BEST part – everything to do with the project, down to the font they use has been made Open-Source (available to everyone). What a gift to the cultural world they have offered – I only hope that people engage with it and understand its full potential. I, for one would LOVE to play with one of those pens. Having a technical theatre background the potential uses I can see for it are pretty limitless. They should be used to transform visitor experience in all organisations, Theatres, Museums, Galleries. Let’s embrace the new technology and allow it to enhance our futures rather than remaining stuck in the past.
I encourage you to read more about it here: http://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/strategies-against-architecture-interactive-media-and-transformative-technology-at-cooper-hewitt/
I can’t leave this blog-post without mentioning the incredible guys behind Arcardia. They were so inspirational. Proof that if you dream big you can make anything happen – you just have to be brave enough and trust in your vision. What they have created out of scrap is nothing short of amazing. I wish more organisations would be brave enough to take the sort of risks they do. Imagine how many amazing things we could create if we just said “yes” occasionally rather than being afraid to take risks. It’s one of my pet hates. I’m a massive believer that you can achieve anything if you go into it with a positive mind-set. Sure the plan will evolve and change along the way but to not risk creating something out of fear of failure is criminal. It’s an attitude I wish we could change in many of our cultural leaders. Many of them are sitting far too comfortably. A quote that comes back to me from last year’s No Boundaries conference is: “Let’s get comfortable with our uncomfortableness”. Let’s take some risks. Let’s try new things and lets open our doors and say yes to each other, to our audiences, and to ourselves. Give yourself permission to fail. It’s really okay not to succeed every time because actually you learn so much more because of it. Theatre Bath wouldn’t exist at all without this mentality. We don’t say no we say how can we. I would issue this challenge to all artists – “Be the change”. Together we can do it. We can change the future direction of the industry. We can be more open. We can be more diverse and we can help each other out and work together.
Our door is firmly wedged open (okay we don’t have a physical door but go with us on this), and at any time we welcome you to step through it. We would love to work with you whoever you are and wherever you’re from. So what do you say? Let’s be the change together… We can’t rely on our “cultural leaders” to do it for us. The change starts with us. Together we can. Feel free to email us (info @ theatrebath.co.uk), tweet us or contact us via Facebook.
For more info on the No Boundaries conference and to watch the brilliant speeches visit:
Or search the hashtag on Twitter #NB2015
My first post can be found here: No Boundaries Initial Thoughts