Theatre cuts, a divide and conquer strategy

(In response to this post in The Stage magazine, I'm raising my head above the parapet, and speaking up for the practitioners who have been struggling on without any funding in Northern Ireland, which invariably, includes myself).

𝕴t isn't breaking any secret code pointing out that the arts in general in Northern Ireland have been totally decimated by cuts in recent years. The post-conflict economy was buttressed by very generous loans and grants to NI (most of which was squandered, or stolen, but that's a different website), and the arts began to thrive.

For six wounded counties, Northern Ireland (along with the other 26 to the south of the border) has actually had a disproportionately large cultural impact on the world, with the likes of Van Morrison, Liam Neeson, George Best, The Undertones, Kenneth Branagh, Rory McIlroy, Snow Patrol, half the cast of Game of Thrones and Peter Canavan all hailing from some hill or hightop of this peculiar corner of Europe. With a new sense of confidence that the peace process brought about, theatre and the arts grew, as people wished to engage in their culture.

Most of the most popular pieces were about 'The Troubles', which irked the creative personnel who wanted to portray a forward-looking NI, or even alternative dramatic arcs, but it was too big a topic for the populace to want to brush under the carpet, and isn't that what culture is about after all? To contribute to The Great Record of the civilisation? In 2012, the Troubles were briefly usurped by all things Titanic to celebrate (is that even the right word?) the centenary of the most famous ship to be built in the city, which irked the creatives even more, but we would love to harken back to a time when the budgets sloshing about some of those productions was still available.

Because just about then is when the cuts started to sting, and just like a wound you have just noticed, thinking about it made it hurt even more. It coincided almost perfectly with the rest of the UK of course - Danny Boyle's Olympic Opening Ceremony of 2012, which was arguably the greatest work of theatre in history, was the last time the arts were at the forefront of national discussion (and, from my perspective, the last time the nation as a a whole felt good about itself). But that was all we were to get, because George Osbourne and his cronies convinced the nation that an avoidable financial crisis that wasn't their fault, could only be fixed by punishing the people who suffered from it (while rewarding the people whose fault it was, but that's that other website again).

And the first target for ire when Imperialists want to push an agenda is always the truth, which by extension means the arts, so cut after cut was imposed, as people were cheerfully told to "do more with less." In Northern Ireland, this meant upwards of 70% of budgets have been cut from the Arts Council from it's peak. Companies like Tinderbox have had  their full time staff and reduce their output to part time. This was the main point of contention in a Theatre NI meeting I was attending in 2011, while trying to launch King's Fool Productions. While the established companies too of their tales of woe, us representatives of the unfunded emerging companies looked at each other in recognition that we probably wouldn't see the front of a funding document for years.

We still haven't. Accidental Theatre, who I've worked with on many occasions, have been putting on huge productions at great expense, and under previous circumstances, they would have graduated to full-time status, having demonstrated that they are capable of handling large budgets while garnering critical acclaim. And Bruiser Theatre Company, who I've also worked with on numerous occasions, and are putting on a hugely popular production of The Colleen Bawn in the Lyric Theatre, having 90% of their budget cut, which will be devestating to their future. (There's a petition in place to reverse this, please sign!). 

And then there's the raft of companies that have fallen by the wayside, often with people absorbing very large bills, who didn't secure the droplets of funding required to make their productions feasible. Stuck in a Catch-22, where if you don't have a full time rehearsal schedule, you won't be taken seriously, and if you're not full time, you won't get professional funding, which leaves creators having  to choose between work in a bill-paying job and not getting experience, or getting experience and not getting fed.

This is exacerbated by the attitudes in London by some of the "fringe" venues that are supposed to be nurturing this talent - in particular the Finborough, who won't host a production that doesn't have three weeks full-time rehearsal scheduled in. They still charge the full hire cost of course, and expect many staff to work voluntarily. Considering the company hiring the space will be working on a profit share basis, how much should they budget getting back from a fifty-seater space?

The Finborough's website boasts that "Many of our previous interns have gained excellent paid employment through the experience gained with their work with us." These internships are supposed to last three months - in the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, which automatically excludes anyone who has rent to pay, even allowing for the fact that interns are only scheduled three nights a week. Then consider the weasel word 'many' - not 'all', not even 'most'. There is not the job market in London theatre to hire even half these interns - if there was, they wouldn't have to work for free to attempt to get on the ladder. This in-built survivor bias that offers step-ups for the well-off is symptomatic of the pyramidic society that has been crystallised into a nouveau-feudalism in recent years, and contributes further to theatre becoming detached from the Collective, as audience and practitioners.

Now I'm getting to the point where I'm growing pretty ambivalent to the Arts Council - probably the exact result that Osbourne, and his gilded table cronies were looking for. As someone who hasn't benefitted either directly or indirectly from any funding decisions, it does rub me the wrong way when NI Opera, who are playing to single figure audiences, are getting more funding than every other stage performance company in the north.

The fact that this is all happening amidst eye-watering corporate bonuses; multi-hundred million euro football transfer fees; offshore hoarding of capital by corporations and individuals; and most gallingly of all, billion pound grubby deals negotiated to negate the financial damage caused by three quarters a billion pound of public money being diverted into the pockets of friends of corrupt Northern Ireland politicians is the stingiest element of this. The money is sloshing around, but only available to swell the coffers the well-connected.