Originally posted on Facebook, 9 April 2020
Over the past weeks, I’ve read a number of posts and articles suggesting that the arts sector - the performing arts in particular - should use this time to stop. These posts have not sat well with me, but they have been accumulating and seem to have considerable traction. I have avoided too much engagement with them on the grounds that a) I think we all need to go easy on ourselves and each other right now and b) perhaps selfishly, I wondered if the response they provoke in me is a personal reaction to what I perceive (perhaps unfairly) as judgement of my own decision not to down tools at this time. Last night, I decided to spend some time digging into what exactly I think about this and why. In this post, I want to share what I uncovered.
Note before proceeding: I am not at all addressing the decision of individual artists or groups to use this current interregnum however they see fit. I do not wish to endorse a culture of “should” in any sense. I get that we all sometimes need to stop - I myself took a break from July to November 2019. I am specifically responding to articles positing that somehow the most responsible thing the performing arts sector could do now is cease operations. I will reference some specifics mentioned in this article by Nicholas Berger: https://medium.com/…/the-forgotten-art-of-assembly-a94e164e…
Okay, here goes.
1. First of all, theatre has always been ad hoc. Across history, it has sprung up in all kinds of inhospitable places, adapting to the circumstances at hand, including uncertain - or outlawed - legal status and terrible financial conditions. The notion that we’ve reached a point, in 2020, at which further evolution/adaption (whether temporary or permanent) is no longer possible or desirable flies in the face of millennia of history. I ask who and what would be served by us resigning, en masse, from constant adaptation?
2. Art is not for us, the makers. It is for others, the spectators. At a time like this, being an artist is a bit like being a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef without a restaurant, scrabbling through the cupboards to see what’s available and making something, because they need to eat and maybe someone else does too. A dish is created and set out in case someone shows up. If they do, great. If they don’t, fine. We might not know either way. Someone might come at night, when we are sleeping, and find exactly what they want on that plate. This is how I view digital making now. It’s an offer. What can I offer - with no expectation of return - that might make someone feel less terrible or alone? When I find myself thinking ‘should I stop’ or ‘does anyone care’, I’ve realised it’s actually a call to remind myself what I’m doing and why. I can take care of myself through my practice and I can offer it to others. That’s it right now. And that’s enough. I ask who and what is served by us not offering if we have means to do so?
3. Nicholas Berger writes, “Watching my fifth hastily written monologue by an otherwise talented playwright for Instagram, my eyes glazing over, I begin to wonder, who is this for? Who is the audience for these kinds of ventures? Is there a demand for them outside of our own community? I wonder if that audience found any real comfort in them. I certainly haven’t.” I have not seen anything posted online from non-artists asking artists to stop. Have you? I doubt people have time to ask artists anything right now. I know I’m not. I am ignoring much of what I see, but every now and then my scrolling leads me to a video or a live streamed reading that is exactly what I need in that moment. I probably don’t like or comment on it. But its being there was a good thing in my life that day, even if I only watched for two minutes. I ask who and what is served by us deciding on behalf of our fellow citizens what they do and don’t want us to do?
4. I have read the argument that by making in this period, the performing arts sector is demonstrating a slavish adherence to a neo-liberal emphasis on productivity at all costs. I disagree. What we have lost (largely) are the financial instruments and distribution channels that power our industry and allow it to (at least somewhat) function economically. We have not lost access to the tools of art making. The financial models in the arts sector need radical rethinking (UK Fringe sector, I’d gladly start with you) and the whole field is rife with exploitation. Still, it feels deeply cynical to me to argue for sector-wide inactivity as the most radically anti-capitalist response possible. I ask who and what is served when we meet the de-monetisation of our work with silence?
5. Nicholas Berger writes: “Theatre and its practitioners have been deemed non-essential in this moment and our refusal to acknowledge this has resulted in disposable digital work that dismantles the very intimacy our form demands. We’re being asked to exit the stage, not give an encore.” Theatres have been identified as spaces were COVID-19 is likely to be transmitted due to the close proximity of humans in the auditorium. Extrapolating a public health measure into this sort of self-annihilation feels entirely counterproductive and self-sabotaging. It also feel self-indulgent to me. Very few of us in the arts were nurses or epidemiologists before COVID-19. This does not mean the arts do not have a social role to play. Like other pillars of society (shout out to Benjamin Lloyd for emphasising this in every class of his I took at Villanova), artists have a role to play as members of our communities (local or digitally dispersed). Our care is for the soul and spirit of society, whether through a hard-hitting play on contemporary issues or the witty escapism of a cabaret act, or whatever other form it takes. I make performances because I want to provide the spectator space to encounter themselves in a particular way. I want to provide this space because its existence is something I value when other artists set it up for me. The provisions of these spaces - whatever kind we need, wherever we find them - is entirely essential, as is teaching (schools are closed), as are books (libraries and bookshops are closed), as is gathering socially (restaurants, cafes, pubs and even some parks are closed). I ask who and what is served when we deny the social service the arts provide?
6. I am only reading these articles in English. My Facebook feed is full of artists from all over the world and I am not seeing comparable articles in Czech, French or Polish. I am translating multiple documents discussing the response of performing arts communities in Visegrad countries and I have yet to read anything along these lines. If this conversation is happening outside the Anglo-American sphere, please - send me things, I want to see them. I cannot comment on the US context, but having spent the bulk of my career in the UK, it strikes me that this is a culture that struggles to see a social function for art, that views it as largely decorative and extra (non-essential, if you will) and does not recognise the inherently political nature of arts practice. I ask who and what is served when we accept and internalise the characterisation of our field as fundamentally self-serving and disposable?
If you’ve reached this point, thank you for reading. I was kept awake by these thoughts for much of the night, so they felt important to share. Again, I want to emphasise my belief that finding our own personal ways through must absolutely take precedence now. I just think there is some insidious stuff in here.