Billed as being “For everybody who cares about the future of theatre in the UK” the Theatre 2016 conference organised by 13 partners runs for two days in London’s West End.
Upon arrival we were allowed into the Piccadilly Theatre to find our seats. Upon every seat was a canvas bag containing literature from partners of the conference and a printed version of the programme.
Unfortunately I could only attend the first day as I went down ill but here are my thoughts and provocations.
The Elephant in the Room – PRICE
Let’s get straight into the bone of contention, as one lady commented first thing Thursday morning:
We’ve been talking about accessibility but no-one has mentioned the biggest elephant in the room – class”
I have seen multiple arts professionals take to Twitter and Facebook to talk about the cost of this conference. At over £400 a ticket I’m not surprised. This is a big issue and unfortunately I feel is a reflection of theatre in the UK as it is today. When we price out our own artists and professionals then we have a serious problem and theatre elitism shines through.
I was about to write “I felt privileged to have been there” and then stopped myself, because actually no – all theatre makers should have the right to attend a conference which aims to discuss it’s future.
I couldn’t afford the ticket price either, (even with a significant discount from being a member of a partner organisation), so I emailed Bon Culture months ago and said this to them, I offered to pay in instalments and they came back to me and very kindly offered me a bursary place funded by the Arts Council. So yes it was far too expensive but did anyone who is complaining approach the organisers beforehand to mention this? I did and it worked out well for me and I thank David and the organisers for this.
Personally I would have liked to have seen a pricing structure similar to the No Boundaries conference run by the Arts Council where there were different tiers depending on what level of organisation you were from. As it is, I cannot honestly say that the views of the whole sector are being captured or aired via this conference and that feels like a missed opportunity to me.
One of the most poignant moments was in a quick provocation from Benjamin Monk who took to the stage and mentioned the fact that people had been excluded from this conference based on price. The reaction of a lot of the audience speaks volumes. There were lots of eye-rolls all around me. But he did gain a small ripple of applause at the end. But the point he made has largely been ignored and gone unnoticed in coverage of the event so far.
“Perhaps if we ignore it – it will go away?”
Yinka Ayinde hit the nail on the head in his speech – how can we possibly claim to be accessible when the make up our organisations does not include those who we claim we are trying to attract. And what right have we to tell people what they should and should not be attending. The top down, hierarchical, management framework is in my opinion the most broken about theatre in the UK at the moment. We need to reach out to communities and people on their level and ask them what they want and get them involved with our decision making. Only by making them feel a part of what we do can we ever possibly hope to gain their support and make work that is relevant for them.
General Accessibility & Digital
One of the key themes of the conference was accessibility – yet the conference was not that accessible and from watching Twitter today when people tried to make it more accessible by using Periscope to live stream they were shut down.
There was lots of talk about how to integrate digital more into theatre but this conference fell short on actually managing that.
At the first No Boundaries conference which showed incredible technical ingenuity, Marcus Romer (who was present at this conference) stated at the time “The accessibility of this conference should become the norm. There is no excuse for anyone not to make their conferences this accessible” (Note I’m paraphrasing).
Yet whilst we heard brilliant keynote speeches about digital and accessibility we were told there was no video recording of the conference and no live streaming. There would be an audio recording however. Very basic things which could have helped those who couldn’t attend access what was going on.
Also there were basic operation errors with PowerPoint presentations that led to delays, awkward show stops and slightly embarrassed speakers.
Maybe some points to address is this conference happens again?
EDIT: I forgot to mention (and I apologise profusely for this) the incredible work that STAGETEXT did with the subtitling of the event. It really helped as a tool to catch up, if, like me, you were busy taking notes you could look up and catch what had been said on the screen. Hats off to STAGETEXT and the amazing work they did.
Round-Up of the rest of Day 1
Conference chair Vikki Heywood took to the stage and offered an inspirational talk about the state of the industry and the way forwards:
If theatre can’t lead the way in working together more effectively, who can?”
Dan Rebellato launched into a talk about statistics, statistics and more statistics. Many of which did not come as any surprise to those present. Great that we have more data but it doesn’t show much that we don’t already know or haven’t known for years – the question is what do we do about it? Action needed.
A brief panel discussion was then had with different provocations.
Kully Thiarai said “We don’t understand that difference is something not to be ashamed off… At some point somebody gave people the opportunity. We don’t take enough risks. We don’t support enough people taking theirs. You have to be bold about supporting a new generation.”
Eleanor Lloyd reminded us: “More people go to the theatre than watch football matches”
Alistair Smith talked about the importance of using the skills of people we already have.
Jenny Sealey: “We have to take some of the costs away to enable things to happen”
Stream 1 – How Will The Art and Practice Of Theatre Need To Adapt To Thrive In The Next Ten Years
Richard Lee from the Jerwood Space talked about being hard of hearing and how theatre workers rolled their eyes at him when I asked why there was no hearing loop. He made one of my favourite quotes / observations of the day:
You’re not disabled… Theatre has disabled you!
Sheena Wrigley from Home talked about “dismantling the regional theatre model” and how the work that she is involved with at Home includes three arts producers working across art forms and all departments working together creating a central vision provided my audiences.
If we were a company without a building – what would we be?
She talked about the festival model and how that could work for theatres and how audiences could cherry pick what they wanted to do.Ian Stickland from Charcoal Blue discussed the digital experience to audiences that already exists today and showed us what can already be done with the apps we have on our smart phones and facial recognition in theatre foyers. Libby Penn from Spektrix – “People want everything now and on the cheapest terms”.
Marcus Romer – redefining the word digital “Diversify, Implement, Grow, Iterate, Test, Access, Learning” #Theatre2016
— Theatre Bath (@TheatreBath) May 12, 2016
Day one ended with us being asked to vote on preconceived resolutions, which we weren’t allowed to change which caused some out-cry from those present. Having watched Twitter today it looks like it has been agreed to scrap all of them which I think is the right decision.
Overall this was a good conference. There was a brilliant selection of people there and all of them friendly and approachable. Yes the pricing needs work and the demographic of those who attend needs to shift to enable anyone involved with theatre to be given the opportunity to join in.
There was not enough time for discussion and as brilliant as the keynote speeches were there was far too much emphasis on listening and not enough on discussing potential solutions to problems and the practical application of opening our doors to each other and working together.
It’s a step in the right direction but I only hope the ideas and provocations have legs after the conference has ended and don’t just become another collection of thoughts which sit gathering dust on the top shelves of our “cultural leaders”.
Let’s not forget how great an achievement it is to bring so many theatre people together and thank you to David and team for all the hard-work in making it happen.
I look forward to seeing the reports from day 2.