Research can save theatre! Would you have said that six months ago?

13 Sep

Fin Kennedy is a dangerous man. I’ve never met him but he’s an arts hero for our time. Who would have thought research could be so important?

Well we can’t really be too harsh on Ed Vaizey. No, he was just doing what politicians in this situation do – refuting any suggestion that they or their party are doing any harm. When confronted about cuts in the arts he replied that Arts Council cuts were having no effect whatsoever on British theatre. However, if evidence was provided that new play development had been harmed he promised to raise it with the Arts Council personally.

Kennedy’s response to this was radical, extraordinary, heroic. What did he do? He, along with Helen Campbell Pickford, conducted a survey, of course. What else would you do?

This may not sound like the most creative response but it’s hard to think of a more effective one. This research, that culminated with the report In Battalions (http://www.scribd.com/doc/126273288/In-Battalions), has given the sector something to rally around. Complaints about funding cannot now simply be dismissed as isolated, anecdotal examples.

I am a great believer in the power of research. For my day job I research the non-profit sector and I also sporadically volunteer as a researcher for the cutting edge Tricycle Theatre in their Creative Learning Team. There has been greater emphasis in recent years in the arts, like other funded activities, on demonstrating impact. Some see this as a tiresome intrusion but as one arts practitioner succinctly put it at a conference a few years ago: ‘If we can’t prove our impact we’re fucked aren’t we?’. But research in the arts sector can also be greatly empowering. Theatre’s relationship with research is a long and complex one. Arguably actors started doing more research, if that’s the right term, since the days of Stanislavski. And of course any writer should have always done a fair amount of research for their work, although many of Shakespeare’s histories have factual inaccuracies (these are usually forgiven).

Then you have a more direct approach, with research itself being presented, or rather moulded into, drama, normally referred to under the umbrella term ‘verbatim theatre’. The Tricycle for many years did its tribunal plays. There are various other plays featuring actors speaking real people’s words, bringing testimonies to life, ranging from wrongly convicted ex-prisoners in Jensen and Blank’s The Exonerated to Look Left Look Right’s accounts of the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire in The Caravan.

But In Battalions is something rather different. It’s using statistics and research ABOUT theatre for campaigning purposes. This can help facilitate change. Earlier this year Mandy Fenton galvanised people around the Equal Writes showcase (http://equalwrites.co.uk/), her call to arms being the chilling statistic from research by Elizabeth Freestone and The Guardian (echoing research by Equity http://www.equity.org.uk/news-and-events/equity-news/equitys-womens-committee-research-into-casting/?preview=true) that currently for every stage role for women there are two roles for men. Oh the power of basic statistics. Theatre has often been used to advocate social change, but sometimes it needs to get its own house in order.

In Battalions showed, amongst over things, that the majority of responding theatres since April 2012 had cancelled at least one production, had produced fewer new plays and had commissioned fewer new writers. And, as someone who researches the funding of the voluntary sector for a living, I was unsurprised to see that many theatres had also experienced multiple funding cuts. This is particularly pertinent when organisations are looking to be sustainable – the golden rule is not to be too reliant on one source of funding. But what can you do when you are being cut on all fronts?

Vaizey’s response to the report was breezy and deaf to subtlety, as you might expect (http://finkennedy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/ed-vaizey-responds-to-in-battalions.html). But the battle does not cease here.  Phase 2 of the research is open to experts in their field (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/inbattalionsdelphistudy). Let’s hope it can provoke debate and act as a catalyst in the same way the original report did. 

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