Now in its second year, Theatre Uncut has gone truly global. An initiative established in 2010 to respond to the cuts being imposed on the UK by the coalition government, in 2011 it took responsible, proactive theatre-making to exciting new heights. This year, the preview shows that were supposed to simply raise awareness secured them three awards at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in the recent “week of international action”, there were over 180 performances of the 2012 Theatre Uncut plays in the UK and across the globe, in countries including Romania, Chile and South Africa.
For co-artistic director Emma Callander, discussing politics through the medium of theatre was a natural progression. Theatre Uncut itself began as a conversation between co-artistic director Hannah Price and playwright Mark Ravenhill in October 2010. Price contacted her favourite playwrights to ask if they would assist her in the project designed as a week of action to explore current politics. Each playwright wrote a ten minute play which could be downloaded online and performed rights free by anyone who wanted to during one week. The format followed suit this year, with performances taking place across the globe from 13 to 18November.
Theatre has “forever been a medium of debate and discussion because of its live nature,” observes Callandar. “It’s the most immediate form of being able to explore big issues through having the distance of a narrative, character or metaphor. You can really access these issues in a much deeper way.” Back in March 2011, there were 87 performances of plays written by the likes of Jack Thorne, Clara Brennan, David Grieg and Dennis Kelly. The first year had a national focus as it was in response to the UK cuts and so were mainly performed in the UK “in community centres, schools, theatres and universities, by professional actors and Arab groups all across the board and then some of the performances happened in Chicago, in Berlin and in Dublin, so it became clear that it wasn’t just the UK that was interested in speaking about these issues.”
In response – which is of course precisely what it does best – Theatre Uncut 2012 has gone global. Contacting playwrights in countries experiencing the greatest political upheaval was an active attempt to discover what the situation is from the population’s point of view, not from that of the national or international press. “We wondered whether there was a reason for us to do Theatre Uncut again or whether it was just something of its time, but sadly we realised that it was important for this project to happen because there were a lot of people who needed to discuss and to hopefully take action on some of the injustices going on around them.” Ten-minute plays from Egypt, Greece, Spain, Iceland, Syria, the UK and USA all follow a brief to “respond to the political situation in your own country with the future in mind”.
Callander explains, “We admitted that we were just very confused and that all of the news that we read, really was quite overwhelming… we wanted to know what the political situation was in their own words and then we’ve shared that all over the world.” Theatre Uncut has become a distinctly revolutionary and creative way for people to become part of larger conversations happening not just in our country but around the world, whether they seek to support resistance, take a stand for what they believe in or simply find out more about what’s going on and form their own opinion on it.
Each play has an element of the local and the universal, perfectly encapsulated in Clara Brennan’s play Spine. Written about the closure of British libraries, something particular to the arts in our own country, Callander comments: “we’ve recently had an email from a South African girl, who’s performing in Swaziland and that’s the play that’s touched her the most and she’s been telling us about how it is really helping her to express an issue that she has about libraries in the black communities of South Africa and the complications that still remain in education that are left over from apartheid”. This must be a hugely exciting moment for everyone behind the scenes at Theatre Uncut, when something that seemed so British actually has such huge resonances. “It’s like a big international exchange of ideas through theatre,” agrees Callander.
“Every play is as important and vital as the next. The audience will be in for an amazing treat because of the scale and breadth of what these plays approach and tackle. My dream would be to have all the writers in the same room so they could discuss their ideas.” The intention is that audiences will see a snapshot of the political situation in each country and have a chance to respond directly afterwards with special guests leading the discussions such as comedian Mark Thomas and journalist Owen Jones. “I’m a huge believer that theatre is a really powerful tool for positive social change. In times like these [when faced with opposition] theatre finds its power again.”
Amidst the recent politicisation of our generation – from student protests to creative enterprises like these – we are clearly ready to stand up and make ourselves heard. Callander admits that the August 2011 riots had an over-arching negative effect, but that “cannot cloud the fact that [our politicisation] was one of the most important things that has happened in this country in terms of politics and young people’s engagement with politics since the conservatives were last in power in the late 1980s.” The reason why Theatre Uncut is taking a second bite of the cherry this year is because the energy required for protest can only be sustained for so long. “It falls to people like us in theatre to sustain that level of activism… we keep bringing these issues back to the fore so people carry on thinking and talking about them.”
That’s not to say that Theatre Uncut is just for young people. Anyone can engage or be involved but the important thing for Theatre Uncut is to make sure that after the buzz about protests or riots has died down in the media and the next latest scandal or disaster takes its place in our minds, we don’t forget that our daily lives are still being affected by decisions being made by the people in power and the cuts are going to keep on coming. In our age of austerity with the arts experiencing the brutal lash of funding cuts, Theatre Uncut is turning the tables to question those who have the power to question us. With two successful years under its belt, Theatre Uncut is certainly keeping up its side of the conversation so it falls to us to keep up ours. After all, if we don’t talk, think and play, how can we expect anything to change?
Find out more about Theatre Uncut at www.theatreuncut.com.
Image credit: Zawe Ashton in Theatre Uncut 2011 at Southwark Playhouse. Image by Theatre Uncut.