Sunday, June 12, 2011

Theatre Forum, 'On With The Show': With Great Power Comes Great "Responsibility" (and No Funding)

“On With the Show” – a title aptly given by Theatre Forum Ireland to their conference this year. Over the course of two days, sessions took place in NUI Galway which discussed issues such as the development of ‘new media’ in theatre promotion and discourse, the current state of the theatre artist in his/her career sustainability and artistic responsibility, and the always pressing issue of funding.  

“The next two budgets will be deadly” said Fergal McGrath – the Chair of Theatre Forum – in opening the conference. McGrath stated the importance of arts organisations focusing on these budgets and offering their support to Minister Jimmy Deenihan to fight for theatre’s resources.  Deenihan – in attendance himself – complemented the work of the National Campaign of the Arts for better informing T.D.s, which he believes will make the arts community’s battles easier.  He stressed the notion of ‘philanthropy’, asserting that there has to be new ways of getting funding. He revealed that he’s preparing a package for the next budget to leverage new funding.  He also stressed that “the socio-economic aspect of arts audiences needs to be examined”. Theatre Forum Ireland’s conference is a platform for practitioners in the industry to voice issues, but what was the verdict on the theatre audience?

Heather Maitland – an arts consultant and marketing and audience development specialist – collects information from venues and festivals in Ireland to assess similarities and differences. In a session on audience benchmarking she revealed that around 30% of Irish households bought theatre tickets in 2010. Her research showed that there was an average of 258 events, which is a decrease from the previous year, with only one third of organisations having sold more tickets in 2010 than in 2009. On average, 49% of all event tickets were sold. Maitland found the scale to be incredible in terms of who is doing well and who is doing bad, and is unable to verify a strategy that accounts for success or decline across the board. In crunching data about audiences, she learned that a vast majority of theatre audiences are not regular visitors to the same venue. There has been difficulty in retaining audiences, with only 23% of first-time ticket buyers in 2009 returning in 2010, but the good news is that Irish organisations are good at generating new audiences. Also, loyal audiences do be appearing to be staying loyal. Still, the overall picture doesn’t appear to be the healthiest. Maitland can’t locate consistencies in marketing tactics that guarantee occasions of better attendance. What she does know is that change, whether it’s good or bad, seems less and less to do with the type of organisation.

One thing on people’s minds is getting the young people into the theatre. Ken Davenport – a producer who has worked on productions on and off Broadway – gave a talk from the producer’s perspective. He mentioned that in his experience young people are just not prone to going to the theatre and that a producer will focus more energy on people who are more likely to go to a show. Willie White – Artistic Director of the Project Arts Centre – remarked on Davenport’s analogy of theatre as “an acquired taste” as a recipe for conservatism. The responsibility of encouraging young people to go to the theatre seems very much to rest on the shoulders of practitioners hoping their work will entice younger audiences.   

On a brighter note, we have displayed some innovation in reacting to the funding crisis. Everyone is very much a fan of Andrew Hetherington’s crowd-funding site: According to Hetherington a total of 70,000 donations have been made since the project went live eleven weeks ago. Seventeen projects have been fully funded and the average amount of a pledge is 38euro. Davenport, who is currently the producer of the first ever crowd-funded Broadway musical, weighed in on his experience of pledgers, finding that those who donate smaller amounts are usually those more passionate and willing to be involved. He also stressed that donors and investors like to feel involved, and that producers should regularly inform them of the production’s progress. Loughlin Deegan – Artistic Director of Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival – summed up the current state of the artist-funder relationship: For so long we depended on one benevolent funder in the form of the Arts Council. The present focus is not on one benevolent funder but on many benevolent donations. We need more friends”.

Another thing that seems certain is that social media is being embraced in the bosoms of theatre producers and journalists alike. Phillip McMahon of pop culture outfit THISISPOPBABY gave a quick talk on how the work-in-progress showing of his musical – Alice in Funderland – sold 600 tickets through exclusively paperless promotion. McMahon reckons that theatre artists are not being creative enough with social media, and encourages practitioners to share their stories on facebook and twitter. Andrew Dickson – the theatre editor for The Guardian News and Media – commented on the relationship between printed media and online media, claiming that they’re all fighting for the same space now. Where are the best conversations taking place? Ireland’s social media guru Darragh Doyle thinks that twitter is probably the worst thing to happen to theatre, as audiences are following people who may not necessarily be the best voice on the subject. Dickson did pose some interesting questions, prompting us to think about the ethics of bloggers with the power of live commentary and whether or not artists are being creative enough in offering journalists material about their work. He is optimistic about the evolving role of new media, commending it for creating a more complicated ecology. He also affirmed that newspapers are not a dying form. The platforms and distributions are simply broadening.

Technology was also brought up in a discussion on how the audio-visual sector is working close with the arts sector to distribute recordings to audiences who are not in proximity to the performance. Niall Doyle – CEO of Opera Ireland – now organises live satellite transmissions of Saturday matinees from Metropolitan Opera in New York. The topics of other sessions were varied. Jo Mangan – Artistic Director of The Performance Corporation – spoke of the struggles of working with a co-creator an Atlantic Ocean away during their time producing Swampoodle.  Professional archivist Barry Houlihan looked at the current position of theatre archives in Ireland, while Craig Flaherty – co-organiser of JOLT – spoke of how the initiative was encouraging theatre audiences to take new risks.

The topic of artists’ “responsibilities” is currently a heated one in the theatre industry. It seemed that Fintan O’Toole’s documentary Power Plays – his thesis that a lack of ambition has prevented practitioners from producing an exciting play that engages with our post-boom state of life – was an inescapable backdrop for any discussion on contemporary Irish theatre. Niall Crowley – an independent equality expert – argued that theatre and the arts had eluded any dialogue for ‘equality’ and ‘solidarity’ in society. His stance is that art and culture sit at ease with the political and elite, and that theatre and the arts need to speak beyond the confines of their own sector and collaborate with civil organisations. He thinks that there is a need to redefine the arts’ aesthetic responsibilities according to their ethical responsibilities. Theatre could play the role of ‘co-creator’ and engage with communities to develop social change. Crowley views much of contemporary theatre defined by the practice of art as the inner impulses of individual artists, and as a result theatre and art have been separated from the community around them.

In response, Sarah Glennie – the Director of the Irish Film Institute – finds that current debates on the responsibilities of the arts could damage our contemporary culture. In regards to claims of reinventing our past, she asserts that artists are already engaging with society outside of a historical model. Neglecting a dialogue with civil organisations may be a ramification of this but asking artists to focus on this ‘social change’ is not the answer. She reminds us that the National Campaign for the Arts is not a policy. It doesn’t dictate productions or instruct artists on how to do their work. If it did, artistic production in Ireland could be suffocated. The aesthetic of the nineties may have been dominated by a theoretical and practical process of capturing the human relations of a social context, but as Glennie put it: “artists don’t speak on behalf of society but on behalf of themselves. If people relate, so be it”. Many in the room also voiced their disagreement with Crowley’s argument. Willie White found his perception along with O’Toole’s to be out of date and ignorant of many productions over the past decade such as Brokentalkers’ Silver Stars and THEATREclub’s Heroin that engaged with issues of inequality.     

Also in conversation on the life of the Irish theatre artist, Lynn Parker – Artistic Director of Rough Magic – in one session stated that the challenge is to create an ecosystem that is balanced and sustainable. It’s about how you address two questions: i) how do you make a living? and ii) how do you sustain creativity? She mentions how those in administration enjoy more security than those who are in creative, and that freelance and individual artists need to be supported by production companies. Actor Peter Daly then gave a charming account of how over the past ten years he donned an accountant’s suit by day and pursued his true ambition by night. Brian Singleton – Academic Director of the soon-to-be-opened Lir School of Dramatic Art – chimed in with his hopes that the Lir with become a renewable source for the industry. He also mentions that there has been a shift in thinking in British schools where actors are now engaging creatively – doing research and devising – instead of just being the “hired help”. In comparing the Lir to the British schools, Singleton says that British schools are creating actors for an established industry. The industry is still under-developed here.  He hopes that the Lir will allow the industry to experiment and reinvent itself.

We seem to be in a place where Irish theatre artists are put under pressure to defend their “responsibilities” and protect their livelihoods. It’s important that they be certain of their mantras and confident in what they feel is right, and this was hit home rather well by Gabriel Byrne. In interview with Róise Goan – Director of the Dublin Fringe Festival – Bynre told of his own struggles becoming an actor, crippled by self-doubt in his first dealings with the Gate and RTÉ. Goan asked Byrne if Imagine Ireland will have a legacy – whether it has changed the perception of Irish art and culture.  Byrne believes that changes in perception are occurring, especially considering that American audiences have limited views of what happens outside of America. He believes that Irish artists are beginning to be perceived in a new way: “America is ready to hear those voices. It’s a very lopsided position now. We know everything about America but they know very little about us”. He is also very confident that Irish artists will continue to tour after the Imagine Ireland year. Goan noted that Byrne is not just a gun-for-hire but an artist in his own right, having produced Into the West and In the Name of the Father, and written Draíocht. She asked why these projects, many of which have marginalized individuals whose voices need to be heard, were important to him. He answered: “What you have to say is valid. You just have to find your way of saying it”. Byrne went on to passionately convey that art fundamentally belongs to us. He encourages artists to find ways to work outside the system and, most importantly of all, don’t be afraid to follow your own voice. As he put it: “Everything you feel is valid. Forget following the system. The system will follow you if you find your own voice”.

Very inspiring moment.

Other tidbits from ‘On With the Show’ ...

Fergal McGrath announced that he’s stepping down from Chair of Theatre Forum Ireland. No doubt he will be missed. Druid General Manager Tim Smith will be filling the role (who is a pretty strong choice).

When asked about the development of new plays on Broadway, Ken Davenport revealed that the task of producing a new play on Broadway has become more “challenging”.

Lynn Parker credits Rough Magic for pioneering career development in this country, and rightly so.

Did you know that Gabriel Byrne was involved in experimental work in the Project Arts Centre in the late 70s?

In his research, Niall Crowley referenced a survey where people found The View exclusive to the elite and that Nationwide was a true and accessible arts programme.  

Andrew Hetherington mentions a growth in donations from outside Ireland on (20% of pledges are from outside Ireland).

Hetherington used THISISPOPBABY’s campaign as an example for his presentation but he neglected to mention the name of the show. Quite a bit of sniggering when “The Year of Magical Wanking" came up on the projection slide.

“Auditioning is worse than the Irish oral exam” – Gabriel Bynre

Loughlin Deegan mentioned that Brokentalkers have had their workshop with choreographer Eddie Kay. The pledgers who were invited to the workshop as a reward for their contributions were mainly non-theatre industry individuals.

While Phillip McMahon preached of the power of paperless promotion, Heather Maitland claimed that use of social media in marketing by venues and festivals has caused very little difference in ticket sales. In fact, audience responses she collected found social media to create excited chatty but inward communities who are completely divorced from the rest of the theatre audience.

When Gabriel Byrne stressed the importance of younger Irish artists being heard, Róise Goan mentioned The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We travelling to the Radar festival in Los Angeles this week as a prime example.

Hetherington is confident that Solstice will reach their fund-it target. One day left to pledge.

A lot of people applied for Project Awards. A. Lot.

Lynn Parker expressed concern over the future of the Project Arts Centre, stating that it’s under-resourced and needs to be protected.

“You can take the boy out of the accountancy but you can’t take the accountancy out of the boy” – Peter Daly  

 “I’m the Jedward guy” – Gabriel Byrne

Maitland expressed frustration over Ontroerend Goed complicating her data-gathering as their shows didn’t reflect the typical seating capacity of venues. Damn Belgians. Again.  

Darragh Doyle wants to “whore out” the blog and I. Keep watching this space.

What did everybody else think? 

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