Say what now? The APAC15 Conference

This years APAC was great – in the literal sense of the word. The nature of the art of theatre, its value, its language, its potential for social change, its political nature were all up for discussion. As Gary Keegan summarised it on twitter ” Kindness, grassroots, intrinsic value, artists leading the way, fearlessness in challenging the status quo”. The speakers and panelists – some of whom I agreed with and some of who I vehemently disagreed with – were all committed, passionate and inspirational. But I think we would all agree that everything paled in the light of Sir John Tusa’s keynote: it was a Masterclass in Public Speaking, or as somebody put it, “a masterclass in just plain speaking“.   The Conference was also, in my experience, unique in terms of who turned up – and who didn’t turn up.  What struck me most, on reflection, was that for all the words that were used, we actually don’t know what we’re talking about.

Hope that last sentence got you to click “the read more” link and you’re still with me. What I mean is that when we talk about Art, Culture, Creativity, Radical or whatever,  we are actually talking about a whole range of very different things but grouping them under the same word. For example, there was a wonderful contribution from Claire Hodgson  on working with people and artists with disabilities to create art, and a disarmingly nervous presentation from David Bolger about participatory arts and dancing with seniors,  and there were several impassioned statements about the value of youth theatre and working with young people through theatre. There were discussions of radicalism (mostly political) in theatre and the most inspirational talk from Birgitta Jónsdóttir on art, politics and activism.

i would like to suggest that each of these are examples of very very different activities – and very different from the consumer/entertainment model of art inherent in theatre such as  DruidShakespeare (which was playing Hawks Well at the end of the conference). What they all have in common is creative activity and practice and that’s it. All of them will produce Art but not all the time, and not all of them are concerned about this. Apart from the practice (paint, dance, play, sing, make, write), they have very little in common. (Calling them the same thing is like calling a restaurant and a hospital the same thing because they each have people skilled in the use of blades). The creative impulse – from the artists (and who is the artist in these contexts is up for discussion) point of view is very different in all of them. It’s remarkable in a conference that talked about the dangers of instrumentalism that the majority of arts activity discussed was the most susceptible to  instrumentalism: we can see and measure (qualitatively at least, quantitatively if we try a little harder) the impacts  of creativity on all the subject groups mentioned above. As a student of David Bolger’s remarked: “it made me feel visible to the world again”.

So what’s my point? If they’re all different how can we effectively apply the same business and funding model to all of them? How can we assess them all the same way? We can’t. It also seems bizzare to me that a single agency (An Arts Council) is expected to support and develop the art (i.e. the instrinsic bit) and the area upon which it impacts (the instrumental bit).

Mark O’Brien had the lovely comment “we should all come out as creative”. Yes we’re all creative, I believe this. But what happens to the artist’s livelihood as an artist when everybody is creative? When everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody as Gilbert and Sullivan put it. I think we need to tread very, very carefully here.

The difficulty the arts have in “speaking truth to power” is that power – as Veronica Coburn pointed out – doesn’t value, care for, or understand the arts. I would suggest that they don’t understand it because there are so many different things going on under the rubric of Arts, and the idea of what it is becomes confused with what we use it for.

As I mulled over all the various contributions I asked myself what if we were able – on a policy level – to separate out these two objects of thought: what art is and what it does. Imagine for a moment, a continuum  – a circle perhaps. Along that continuum there are different kinds of activities: – entertainment theatre (e.g. shows that are produced and sell tickets), theatre for young people, theatre in education and education through theatre, theatre and mental health, theatre and managment training, theatre and disability, theatre and politics, theatre and heritage, theatre and tourism, theatre and community etc etc. It’s possible to imagine  unique  funding and business models for each of them. For a start if tourism is benefiting from theatre then it needs to start paying for it and we need to optimse the benefit; when you get into areas of health and disability and education then service level agreements and tenders are perhaps the way to go funded through the relevant agencies, when you get into the mixed economy of part subsidised and part ticketed perhaps we need to look at copyright value, repayable grants, underwriting, or public/private investment models.  If theatre (and the wider arts and culture) are part of the reason we attract multi-nationals then that aspect of theatre must become a cost item on the IDA’s annual spend. A lot of this already goes on but in an ad hoc way. (I wish this was a unique idea but I believe the Ancient Greeks had a system whereby the state paid the writers and the actors and appointed a local wealthy merchant to meet all other costs).

Theatre Impact Wheel The important aspect of this approach is that if the state – for a whole range of reasons – are taking an overwhelmingly instrumental approach to arts valuation then we should push that logic through to its conclusion. The beneficiaries of the instrumental impact of the arts should be the ones to pay for that impact. This allows the Arts Council to narrow its remit and focus on supporting and developing the instrinsic aspects.

There are organisational complexities in this but it allows for multiple funding sources focused on the specific needs of each practice, breaks dependency on single sources of investment, provides clarity for the state agencies and allows artists to make clear, focused and multiple arguments for funding.

As you can see from the blurred diagram on the left this requires a lot more thought. Its main strength is that it forces the point that theatre – as an art – has both an intrinsic and an instrumental value, that these valuations are very different, and that we need to assess them, discuss them and evaluate them separately and with very different criteria. It also allows artists to comfortably embrace the idea of instrumentality in the knowledge that it is not replacing the intrinsic but complementing it.

So thanks to all at APAC15 for planting this challenging concept in my head.

On a final note I was suitably provoked by the panel discussion on when was Irish Theatre last radical. It sat like a rash on me for quite some time until I realised that radical was one of those words. There was a kind of unspoken agreement on the political and moral content of the phrase “radical theatre”. I was grateful to the immensely practical Paul Hayes for his question as to whether “radical” could fill his theatre on a wet Tuesday. I felt his question was not appreciated, which I think is always a good sign. Eventually what I came up with was that we needed to interrogate our use of the word and ask the questions radical to who? radical for who? and radical to what purpose?

Without these kind of questions we assume too much, and I think the purpose of APAC15 was to challenge our most fundamental assumptions. Congratulations and thanks to all involved on achieving that.


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