Hannah Price was not alone in her frustration as she watched George Osborne present the government’s Spending Review to the House of Commons last October. Yet what she did with the mounting sense of injustice she felt as budgets, schemes and allowances were steadily culled was a little more unusual. Six months after the Spending Review was announced, Theatre Uncut took to stages up and down the country with a series of short plays written by leading playwrights in response to the cuts. It turned out to be not only a national artistic protest, but a model for collaboration in theatre.
“The idea for Theatre Uncut was entirely to use the medium that we work in to say something that we wanted to say, which was that the cuts are falling in entirely the wrong place and are not doing what they should be doing, if we needed them at all”, explains Price, Artistic Director of Reclaim Theatre and a self-confessed “do-er”. After approaching like-minded friends, she assembled a team of playwrights, directors and actors to create a programme of work that could be staged in London theatres, suburban living rooms and rural town halls.
Price jokes that as writer-in-residence for Reclaim Theatre, playwright Clara Brennan was destined to be involved in the project from the very beginning. Yet it is clear that shared principles and mutual respect for each other’s work are much more important to the collaboration than mere convenience. “Clara writes stuff with a very strong social understanding, so it was natural really”, says Price. “The nature of her writing lends itself perfectly to what we were doing.” Brennan adds: “I remember this period where Hannah was throwing stuff at the TV and we were all listening to the Spending Review. I wanted to be involved, I would have fought to be involved.”
Like all forms of protest, Theatre Uncut embodies many hopes and aims – to express dissatisfaction, raise awareness, bring about change – and its effects are not always clearly measurable. Price recognises that “whenever you do anything that has any kind of political message you hope for change”, but that it would have been naïve to think that a night of theatre was likely to have a profound effect on the government’s policies. For her, Theatre Uncut is more about being part of “a bigger discussion that’s going on across lots of mediums and formats” and raising awareness of the real life issues behind the cuts, than it is about starting a debate. “Did I sit there and hope that someone would come and debate with me? Not really. Did I hope that some people would hear about it who maybe didn’t realise what level of anger there was around it? Definitely.”
It can be questioned to what extent theatre is a useful tool for protest – it is never going to hog the headlines like a kettle of grubby students, nor leave decision makers quaking in their boots like the might of big business. Yet by focussing on real stories and lives, theatre is able to powerfully communicate the human impact of abstract political decisions. “Theatre lends itself perfectly to making a statement about anything,” argues Price. “It is essentially empathetic, so if you want to say something you can say it beautifully by staging it.” Brennan adds that as a playwright, her approach to writing any play, whether intended as a protest or not, starts at the most basic level: “For me, we’re telling stories, and whether they were beautiful allegories for the cuts and for the nation, or whether they were slightly more focussed, I feel that it was enough to make us think in detail about what the cuts meant.” Thus by concentrating on the intensely personal, the plays are intrinsically political – the two fundamentally linked.
Brennan’s one-woman play Hi Vis shows us a mother, fearful about the future and angry at cuts to the Motability scheme that prevent her from taking her disabled daughter out for trips from her residential care home. It is a subject that Brennan feels passionate about, perhaps even more so because these particular cuts were practically ignored in mainstream dialogue. “For me it was personal, I’ve been in a lot of care homes and know a lot about residential care. I am taking all of these cuts incredibly personally.” By focussing on the issue of mobility and freedom for people in residential care, Hi Vis makes a much larger point about the true impact of the cuts: “It means we’re imprisoning people – so for me it was as much about human rights as talking about cuts.”
Like many of the plays, Hi Vis gives a voice to people affected by the cuts who may otherwise not have their stories heard. “The thing we won’t see about the cuts is the hidden impact. We won’t know about people who are living in poverty because we won’t hear their voices,” Brennan says. “One of the reasons why I wanted to write about carers and disability and residential care was exactly that – it’s behind closed doors and people don’t fly the flag. It upsets me that, in essence, everyone really and truly affected by these cuts is completely unrepresented.” The central character of the mother speaking for her daughter is crucial in showing “that it is us, the able-bodied, the able-minded, who are always speaking on behalf of somebody”. Along with David Greig’s Fragile, where a young man confronts the audience about the closure of a mental health support centre, Hi Vis is one of the more powerful Theatre Uncut pieces in making us realise the human stories behind a line in the budget.
Although Price provided the playwrights with a specific brief to write about a broad spectrum of cuts and issues, and not focus on arts cuts specifically, she believes there are many parallels that can be drawn and that arts cuts should not be ignored. “I think Open Heart Surgery, whilst it isn’t directly talking about arts cuts, talks about pulling the heart out of a society and I think you can apply that very neatly to arts cuts.” We share the concern that the full impact of the cuts are unlikely to be felt for many years, with the arts at particular risk owing to the importance of education, outreach and development. “It’ll be a case of ‘where have all the Tony Awards gone?’, and it will be because nobody will be developing the War Horse of the future – it’s just not going to happen.”
Yet in many ways Theatre Uncut embodies one of the few positive side-effects of recent budget cuts by presenting a model for theatrical collaboration. Not only did the artists and venues come together through informal networks, shared principles and sheer generosity, but Theatre Uncut was both international and non-hierarchical, the plays downloadable for free online so that anyone could stage them with complete artistic freedom. Price and Brennan trace this spirit of collaboration back to their own experiences as students, having met on a MA course at RADA and worked together ever since. “If you work with people you trust then it doesn’t seem that difficult to make something happen,” says Price. “We’re all adjusting in the way that art always adjusts to any economic situation, but it still doesn’t mitigate the cuts themselves and the impact they’re going to have. It just means that larger companies have taken the view that smaller companies are going to need their support. We’ve had a lot of support from large companies – Paines Plough, Southwark Playhouse, Soho Theatre. But it’s a necessary side-effect rather than something Cameron can decide to credit as part of his Big Society.”
Nevertheless, Theatre Uncut’s model for regional collaboration and quick-response theatre-making offers a promising foundation for future work. Price recognises that the timely nature of the plays means that they do not have an indefinite lifespan. Yet whilst they remain relevant they will continue to be performed – Theatre Uncut’s next stop will be the Edinburgh Fringe at the acclaimed new writing theatre the Traverse, whilst Hi Vis will have a life of its own at the Dukes in Lancaster. Our conversation ends on a rather pessimistic note, with Brennan echoing the closing line of Laura Lomas’s Open Heart Surgery: “the cuts are horribly subtle. What’s really terrifying is we won’t be able to comprehend just how much damage has been done and put it back together again until it’s too late.” In this time of uncertainty at least one thing seems clear: Theatre Uncut is going to need to be a loud and relevant voice for some time to come.
Theatre Uncut will be staged at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on 22nd August and Hi Vis will run at the Dukes in Lancaster from 13-15 October. The playtext ‘Theatre Uncut: A Response to the Countrywide Spending Cuts’ is published by Oberon Books and is available for purchase from their website.
A Younger Theatre is giving away five copies of ‘Theatre Uncut: A Response to the Countrywide Spending Cuts’, thanks to Oberon Books. For your chance to win a copy sign up to the AYT newsletter by Monday 1st August.