defence of the arts

In this age of austerity, it is very easy to take a sniffy and dismissive attitude to the arts. “Why save a theatre when you can save a hospital?” appears to be the popular discourse. Indeed, this seems to be the view of Westminster Council, representing one of the most mixed boroughs in the country, which has just taken the decision to axe its entire arts and culture budget, with worrying consequences for projects at the Soho Theatre in nurturing up-and-coming talent, and the English National Ballet in their work with those with Parkinson’s disease.

It is the duty therefore of those who work in theatre and the arts to dispel the myth that theatre is purely a white, middle-class plaything, a hobby which can look after itself thank-you-very-much.

The primary question is, then: who is theatre for? One quick glance at the audience in Wicked, Les Miserables or The Lion King will reveal large numbers of both internal and external tourists, whose bums-on-seats help sustain the West End machine. Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s venture in Saturday night television has also brought in new audiences, young families who are perhaps experiencing live theatre for the first time. They hardly fit the stereotype so easily bandied about by those who see the arts as an easy target.

But what about London’s diverse Off-West End theatres, venues such as the Tricycle in Kilburn, the Unicorn by London Bridge, or the Hackney Empire? To accuse these theatres, these homes to so many new and exciting pieces of work and community projects, of harbouring elitist audiences is perverse to the extreme. I suggest that those who condemn the arts for being in their own bubble check out the annual panto at the Hackney Empire, often starring the multi-talented Clive Rowe, and see for themselves how well it goes down with local residents.

For me, a great example of good practice in this area is the Taking Part team at the Young Vic. I was very proud to work recently as Project Assistant for the Young Vic’s Schools Theatre Festival, working with four local schools from Southwark and Lambeth in putting on a piece of theatre starring 94 Year 9s in front of their proud family and friends. These young people were about as diverse as they come, hailing from across continents, faiths, languages and upbringings. They were united by theatre. It was the first time that vast majority of the students had ever performed before, for many it would be the first time their families had seen them engage with an extra-curricular activity. For many more, it was the first time they had been to a theatre.

In the feedback forms given to all participants, under the question “What did you think of the project?” one student, who had often been difficult in rehearsal, simply wrote, “My Life”. This is what theatre can do, and who theatre can be for. Maria Miller please take note.

Image: on guard