This morning I took part in a Battle of Ideas event – Who Needs Art Anyway? at the Barbican with David Edgar, Munira Mirza and Andrea Rose, chaired by Tiffany Jenkins.
I was very nervous about the idea of a ‘battle’ – and I was asked to speak first, which meant the rest of the panel had the advantage of being able to respond to my points – David Edgar said he thought women writers were doing way better than in the past – he’s right, it’s just not yet good enough imo; Munira Mirza said she doesn’t find the big institutions and buildings, like the Barbican, threatening at all – to which I’d say I guess she’s a braver woman than me; and Andrea Rose took me to task when I said, in a response, that I think the ACE forms are overly complicated with huge amount of form-filling going on. Her point was that the form filling tells us what our audiences are and if I’m arguing for more inclusive audiences, I ought to get that the forms are useful. I think she’s probably right. And I also think the forms are not necessarily the best way of assessors judging prospective work. What with makers not necessarily being the best skilled at form-filling.
Some people in the audience said no artists should be funded at all, as it’s a hobby – and an important one; some said everything should be funded; one young man spoke to what he feels as his exclusion from the arts, a young woman said she doesn’t feel excluded at all; and a young black man spoke about he he rarely sees anyone like him at the theatre – and goes anyway, and wishes he did see more of himself there.
I also said how I see that it’s hard/er for my younger friends making work, at least when I was younger we could often work at a job for a month or two, save money, and use that money to buy time to make our theatre work, our writing work. I see my young friends finding those one or two month or part-time jobs impossible to come by, and finding it hard even to rent a flat without a contract assuring the landlord of permanent work. And I said how it worries me that without supporting those people to make work, the ones (often but not always younger) now finding it increasingly hard to make artistic work in this financial climate, we’re setting ourselves up for a real dearth of makers and good work in 20/30/50 years time.
It was a good event. I always find things like that really scary … and do them anyway.
Here’s the piece I opened with. Yes, it is a tad more of a polemic than I actually feel, what with being perfectly capable of dialogue and reason and equivocation, and having also seen great work at those big venues I feel don’t truly serve the wider audiences, but hey … I had a feeling I’d be asked to speak first, I figured I might as well get it going …
Who Needs Art Anyway?
We do. Humanity needs art. It is the basis of how we communicate – from rock painting to campfire tales to telling the story of our genealogy in song. It is what we do. Our religions are artforms – full of the stories that explain us, made by us, human beings, to tell us the story of ourselves.
There is not a woman who has given birth who has not told and re-told the story, finding a way, in the telling, to make narrative of an experience, as we do with any important life experience, telling ourselves the stories of ourselves.
We make narrative of the wedding, the funeral, the proposal, the divorce. Every one of us has had the experience of hearing a friend (or ourselves) telling a story and becoming aware that that is exactly what it is – a story. Not that it’s not true, but that IN THE TELLING something has changed, it has become the thing itself. The telling of the story – in word or image or sound or shape – is the story.
We are all storytellers. And we all have the desire to not only create, but also to enjoy creativity from others. In story, in song, in theatre, in visual experience. There is nothing more human than our creation of, enjoyment of, and sharing of art. Arts.
So yes, we all need art, want art, but I’m increasingly uncertain that our funding bodies and our private companies are giving us either what we need or what we want.
Theatre and publishing are my main places of interest and of work, so it’s best I focus on them.
I’m not sure it’s appropriate to fund the RSC with the enormous sums it gets, when so many small-scale and fringe companies are doing a better job of bringing in young audiences (without having anything that’s on the school syllabus), bringing in ethnically, racially and age-diverse audiences, and anyway, doesn’t the RSC make a pretty penny from its own ticket sales?
I’m not sure it’s right to give the National Theatre so much when, for the last five years, around 75% (I have a feeling it’s more, but that’s a generous estimate) of the work on their stages has been written by men – and this despite women being 70% of the ticket buyers – the theatre clearly doesn’t care to represent the demographic of its audience on its stages, and I wonder why they are then rewarded with public money, while welcoming the talents of only 50% of the writers available.
Women are not a minority, despite how under-represented we are, especially in theatre and film, on and off stage, on and off-screen.
I’m not sure it’s right that public money should keep going to all these huge buildings and companies if they don’t start addressing themselves to the wider audiences.
I go to the main stages of the National, the Royal Court, the Almeida, the Hampstead – and on and on – and I see a sea of grey hair atop white faces. I’m one of those grey-haired, white faces! I go to work outside London, on the fringe, from small-scale touring companies and I see exactly the opposite. I see vibrant, forceful, under-funded work, made by all ages and seen by all ages, made on less than a shoestring with passion, and it shocks me, every time, that our big companies keep on doing the same old same old – and, largely, getting rewarded for it. Running their spaces in the same way they have always done – top down, boards and managers and hierarchies – that is, paying managers instead of makers – in a way that even some in the business and corporate world are starting to realise is an outdated model. I wouldn’t mind perhaps, if they shared their good fortune more, but one of the legacies of this government’s desire to cut back everywhere, and in the arts hugely, is that the big boys appear to be hoarding their fortune and sharing less than ever.
I’m tired of seeing the same white, male names come up time and again, in both theatre and in publishing.
I’m tired of it all being a middle class game, of most of the fanily I grew up in feeling it’s for them unless it’s a panto or a show in the West End at Christmas.
I’m tired of seeing that in publishing, where the majority of consumers are women, men still get the bulk of broadsheet reviews, men’s work is still seen as the serious stuff, while women’s is seen as domestic. Same in theatre – I write a play about a family, it’s domestic – Mike Leigh writes a play about a family, it’s universal.
And yes, Hilary Mantel may have skewed this a little, but when the stats on the Booker last week showed that the prize has overall been won by twice as many men as women, by twice as many privately educated people as by state educated, and that Booker winners, are more likely to be Oxbridge educated than from any other university in the world – I don’t hold out much hope.
Yes, the arts are for all. But only when all are invited both to create and to participate, to be creator and audience, welcome in both capacities, from every part of society. I think it’s important to note, that as a gay woman, from a working class background, I have never once felt welcome and easy in any arts gathering of the ‘great and the good’ I have ever been in. Not once. I might have made my way in, and been both glad and stunned to be there, but it has never – ever – been with ease.
All of us have an inherent ability to find ourselves through the narrative of humanity. But unless we are inviting everyone to the palaces of culture, telling the stories of all of us, and to all of us, not just a privileged elite, I’m not sure anyone has a right to thrive in the arts. And while I fully believe in wide state funding of the arts – because it is utterly human – I’m not sure anyone with even a partially closed door deserves our money, public or private.
You’re right on so many issues. The National Theatre amongst others, appears to do very little to support and develop female writers. You can’t get your foot in the door because they only want writers who have experience – which obviously means male. Mainsteam theatres never allow their audience to see a female perspective on things. You do have to wonder if large venues actually notice or even care who attends a performance. Many performances I’ve seen at The National (cheap £12-15 seats) are full of middle-age/older audiences – and it has to be said – it’s mainly women!!! One of the comments I’ve often heard via Equity contacts – is why do theatres put on plays written by young men about topics which are so repetitive etc. Who is their target audience? It certainly is not young men as they on the whole would rather spend money on computer games/films – theatre is clearly not their thing.
Sorry should have added – please get a version of this onto The Guardian or something. Equity have been campaigning about a lot of these issues over the past few years. This year – theatre – and the lack of roles for women – particularly older actresses. I’m in contact with Jean Rogers, VP – who gives me regular updates on things.
Stella – I would be keen to know where your 70% of audiences are women statistic comes from. Thank you.
last lot of theatre stats published. sorry can’t remember publication. might be something an Audiences London friend told me. or perhaps a marketing friend. anyway, have heard it from several sources. that’s not to say that 70% of audiences are always women, just that it’s 70% women buying the tickets.