Invitations to thrive in adversity

 

Last week’s Theatre Forum symposium in Wexford was a surprisingly upbeat affair, as speakers talked up a greater role for the arts in a time of economic crisis. Sara Keatingreports

IT IS SIGNIFICANT that this year’s annual Theatre Forum symposium happened in a theatre rather than a conference centre, because Ireland’s performing arts community seemed more interested in talking about art than business. This was perceptively reflected in – perhaps inspired by – the diverse approach that curator Belinda McKeon applied to the conference theme. Gathered under the broad rubric, The Way Through, the programme asked participants to take an imaginative approach to the precarious economic climate, in which arts funding and arts audiences are shrinking.

While there were practical discussions with leaders in arts administration, informative conversations about the challenges to theatre in the digital age, helpful presentations of audience research and networking opportunities for the myriad theatre, dance and opera companies across the island, there was also time for improvisation and reflection, in writing seminars, acting workshops, director clinics and the many casual conversations taking place over the two-day conference. In short, the theatre community was given the opportunity to do what it does best: be creative. As Pat Moylan, chairwoman of the Arts Council, said in her welcome address: “The future of the arts does not depend on the Arts Council, it depends on the artists.”

The keynote lecture, by actor/writer Tim Crouch, set the tone for The Way Through: “I am here as an artist, not as an expert,” he confessed. However, his lateral approach to his lecture, What We Mean When We Talk About Theatre, provided a master-class in creative thinking. With the aid of a series of ludicrous Hollywood portraits, he framed his entertaining discussion around ideas of “acting”, which he defines as the art of “extending yourself into a situation as if it were real”. On one level, it was a focused discussion of performance, and the significant contingent of Irish actors in the audience (Eleanor Methven, Peter Daly and Dee Roycroft, among others) surely appreciated this element of his address. But (to think laterally about Crouch’s ideas), the lecture had wider implications. Acting involves a constant adaptation to circumstance. It is defined by improvising in accordance with new situations, or “being in the moment”, or else it’s bad acting, dead art. In fact, the challenge that the current climate presents might be the ideal one for creativity, in which it is necessary to react to the shift and ebb of emerging realities.

As director Annie Ryan implored in her performance workshop, it’s all about paying attention and responding to the world around you.

THIS WAS A point made by Annette Clancy in a panel discussion, led by Loughlin Deegan, on the nature of crisis. Clancy suggested that the very idea of “crisis”, so over-used in the media, was useless “because, ultimately, we’re coming from an imagined place of stability”. Clancy didn’t want to talk about money or the worsening recession; she wanted the arts community to reflect on the good times, to look inward and ask what happened to the money when they had it. Had they failed their audiences? Had they failed themselves? Had they failed art by failing to provide for the long-term development of arts practice? “Because, let’s face it, we embraced the property developers in ourselves too, we are responsible as well.”

It was unhelpful to call the present time a crisis, Clancy said, because it was inevitable. It is change, the most natural state in the world.

Other members of this fascinating panel included Alistair Spalding, director of Sadler’s Wells in London, who agreed with Clancy. From his own experience in turning the fortunes of the London theatre around, he suggested that “we can use artistic policy to address the financial crisis – it is not just about money”.

Andrew McIlroy, an arts activist and cultural policy-maker based in Brussels, reminded the audience of broader European models. “Money needs to be put into long-term development, so that if it’s taken out, it can be taken out in a long-term way,” he said. “Then there is less potential for such crises or disruption to emerge.”

The Arts Council addressed the conference in force the next day, explaining its vision for ensuring fair treatment and transparency in dealing with arts organisations in the next few months. However, the glaring absence of David Parnell, the council’s head of theatre, undercut that message somewhat.

Director Mary Cloake gave an impassioned solo presentation later in the morning as part of a discussion called Making the Public Case for the Arts, which was met with sustained applause and goodwill. Cloake outlined a strategy for “placing the arts on the national agenda”, based on Kevin Spacey’s argument that funding the arts “is not charity or philanthropy, it’s an investment in jobs and the collective soul”.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs,” Cloake added, are at the heart of this investment. Through highlighting the key employment opportunities they offer, she said, the arts might in fact be at the heart of economic recovery.

Charlie O’Neill, playwright and senior creative director at the Public Communications Centre, called for a coherent campaign to reflect such arguments, and showcased the branding tools necessary to ensure that the message is communicated clearly. It was incumbent on the arts industry as a whole, he argued, to raise the profile of the arts and its significance in the life of the nation. Then, with tongue firmly in cheek, he presented a series of brilliant potential campaign images, framed as an idealised vision of the next five years in Ireland.

IN HIS CLOSING address, chairman Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, urged the audience to “get political – what have you done to support your industry, not just your organisation, in the last month?” Mac Conghail might just be the “arts champion” that O’Neill called for.

The afternoon was taken up with a series of smaller panels, including one attempting to make sense of the relationship between the theatre artist and critic, in which I participated myself, along with theatre critic Peter Crawley and directors Jo Mangan and Tom Creed. It proved too large a subject to tackle in an hour, and there was a sense of frustration among the audience that the real issues they had – as artists, marketing managers, ticket-sellers – had not been dealt with. Yet it was the beginning of a dialogue which may continue in an informal capacity in theatre foyers in the future.

Visitors gathered en masse again for the conference closing session, hosted by the Theatre Forum board of directors, led by chairman Johnny Hanrahan, who invited final comments. Some of these, after two days of reflection, proved creative, indeed inspirational. For example, writer Gavin Kostick suggested using new media to get political, volunteering to set up a Facebook site to register members of the creative industries in Dublin and urging other regionally based arts practitioners to do the same.

Declan Gorman gave an interesting response to the unemployment crisis, based on the precedents set in the 1980s. There will inevitably be fresh Fás-type employment and training schemes, he said, and “we should not just be ready for such initiatives, we should be leading them”.

Gary Keegan, of Broken Talkers Theatre Company, said that artists should impose themselves upon Arts Council discussions, not wait to be invited.

Delegates filed out of the Wexford Opera House exhausted but invigorated. The idea that art thrives in adversity was made more than once over the course of the two days. I suppose we will find out whether that’s true over the next couple of years.