A Theatre Critic's View: Escaping State Funding

Arts funding is under attack: is there an alternative way to get performance on the stage?

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 04 May 2011

Since all of my local political candidates – at least the ones who could be arsed to put their opinions on the "they work for you" website – agree that state subsidy for the arts is essential, I naturally have reservations. The current mechanism for state funding has involved the same artists who apply for funding judging other applications, and recent years have seen well-funded companies emphasising spectacular scenery over good direction, acting and scripts. Arguments about the quality of work are subjective: yet the danger that state funded art can unconsciously follow a state agenda, unwilling to bite the hand that feeds it, is frequently evident in recent theatre and dance.

Unwilling to abandon performance entirely to the free market – I can only watch one Flawless show a year, and understand that my love of opera and ballet is unlikely to be satiated through audience demand – but concerned about the influence of state funding, I am inspired by companies like Flatrate, Pony Pie and Rekindle, who have supported their inspiration through alternative financing. Free of the burden of developing a commercial theatre and the tick box formulae of applications, they go it alone.

Scott Cadenhead from Rekindle is funding his double bill of plays at the Arches himself "as I have done with all the shows," he explains. "I've been paying for performance rights out of my own pocket and everything else that we needed we got on the cheap or borrowed from theatre companies." Yet this frees the company creatively. "The financial situation means that the main focus of the work that we put on will always be the play. I think a good play can be done on an empty stage if needs must.You have to find the right team and use this disadvantage and turn it into a positive for the production."

Rejecting the idea that no money means no quality is a simple flip of the complaint levelled at our national companies, who have been accused of spending money to real aesthetic end, as the performance becomes a parade of expensive costumes and disappointing performances. Amanda Monfrooe, Pony Pie's superstar, found a way of getting her tale of Keanu Reeves, post-modern doubt and the search for meaning into Arches Live! by enlisting her friends.

"I should be clear that I didn't need a huge sum to produce How Keanu Reeves Saved the World. I worked full time as a waitress at Two Fat Ladies. The owner is a former thespian and advocate of the performing arts and I suggested to him that I host an evening fundraiser at one of his smaller restaurants. Using volunteer chefs and waiting staff and food from my allotment, I earned the money I needed for the show, the restaurant earned money from bar sales and benefitted from the PR. This is a slow process, and there was no guarantee I would get the money: I depended on the charity of my employer, friends and the people who bought tickets. But if I wanted to pay my collaborators and buy materials for the show I needed to try."

Both Pony Pie and Rekindle have been rewarded for their ambition: Keanu was a work of humour and profundity, and Rekindle have sold out previous shows at the CCA and the Tron. What they demonstrate is the possibility of working outside of the existing systems of financing – although Monfrooe acknowledges that "going without means producing work on an annual basis. And that means professional progress at a snail's pace." Fortunately, the NTS have now offered her a role, a positive for both her and the company's own future.

While it is fair to say that the decision to find alternatives has been forced, the enthusiasm with which their work was received demonstrates that small budgets do not necessarily restrain excellence, neither of these strategies would work for companies attempting to encourage ongoing opportunity for new performers: Birds of Paradise or Junction 25 follow broader agendas which do require long term investment.

Equally, neither of these companies are setting out to make a political statement. Performance is, however, a political act. It is one of the few situations where people gather to share an experience that doesn't involve wearing team colours or buying stuff: it builds communities of audiences and artists, while bringing serious ideas into public discussion. It is no accident that oppressive regimes try to control the arts, as they disseminate information and encourage discussion. A healthy democracy does need the arts, as an irritant, as a catalyst to debate. The gum flapping of the politicians – which will be forgotten as soon as they have to choose between a pay rise or saving a theatre from decay – hides the purpose of art behind a polite consensus.

The credit crunch is being used as a general excuse to cut the arts. Strathclyde University, no doubt inspired by Glasgow University's successful closure of Gilmorehill (a space given state funding on the condition it was accessible to the public) and their excellent handling of student protest, is making its annual attempt to close the dynamic Ramshorn theatre. While state subsidy has its own problems, the hack and burn approach simply encourages a narrow mentality: the managers at these academic institutions are behaving like small boys trying to impress the sixth form bully. State cuts are symbolic: they send the message that the service being cut is not essential. 

My political education has come entirely through the arts. It is fortunate that the BNP can't put together a good burlesque night, or that Jeffrey Archer has never mastered choreography: my understanding of most issues has been triggered or deepened by performance, from Janis Claxton's study of apes and humans through to Glasgay!'s analyses of sexual politics. While the alternative funding routes are an inspiration, the continued existence of theatres and spaces relies on an infrastructure. Back in the day, the protection of this sort of infrastructure was a good reason for the existence of the state. If the government can't provide this, it might as well hand us over to the multinationals, and give us a free happy meal for every wasted vote we cast.

In the meantime, Pony Pie and Flaterate and Rekindle – along with Rhymes With Purple or Itsy in Edinburgh, and the Traverse's Autumn Season – fly the flag for an arts both independent and imaginative. The foundations of their art are as radical as their product: while fighting the closure of the Ramshorn is essential, finding paths to make theatre that does not rely on funding sends a message that they need the arts more than the arts needs them. After all, art has been defined as the lie that tells the truth, while politicians have been defined as a bunch of lying cunts. 

Rekindle perform their double bill at the Arches, May 4  - www.sponsume.com/project/rekindle-theatre-double-bill

Support the Ramshorn by signing their online petition


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