November 25, 2020

‘Being Values-Driven, Even When It Gets Us Into Trouble!’

One of the Women/Theatre/Justice team Anne-marie Greene offers her reflections on the public-facing in-conversation online event with Clean Break Theatre Company and Slung Low discussing the civic and social work of arts organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was hosted by Dr Ally Walsh, School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds on 11 November 2020.

The pandemic has been the catalyst for soul-searching in every part of society and the arts is no exception. What is, what can and what should be the civic role of the arts during the pandemic?

These questions and many, many more were covered as part of a thought-provoking event hosted by Ally Walsh from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. Taking place on Zoom, this was an ‘In Conversation With’ Anna Hermann (Joint Artistic Director, Clean Break) and Alan Lane (Artistic Director, Slung Low) with responses from Kara McKechnie (PCI Leeds and freelance dramaturg) and Javeria K Shah (Social Performance Network and Central School of Speech and Drama).

So what does ‘civic work’ actually mean? Indeed as pointed out in a literature review commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, while arts organisations are doubtlessly engaging in ‘a variety of activities that could be construed to demonstrate their civic role, they have not yet converged on a common vocabulary that is recognisable or very helpful’. Anna Hermann acknowledged this, pointing out that the civic role of the arts has always been an integral and non-negotiable part of the theatre she is involved in. However, she would more familiarly use the terms ‘socially engaged’, ‘applied’, ‘participatory’, ‘community’. Being ‘civic’ speaks to the same cause, namely the role of the arts to engage and enable people for a social purpose. If we start from this position, a civic role is at the heart of what companies like Clean Break have always done. The pandemic has not changed this. However it certainly has exacerbated the hardship faced by many members of our society and thrown it into sharp relief.

The realities of this hardship are important to be aware of because the public narrative, such as we have seen paraded in the mainstream media and Twittersphere is that the theatre sector is closed. Think of the common images of dark and silent West End theatres and production runs cut short with lockdown restrictions. However, the reality is that many theatres have not been shut, with many theatre companies being as active as ever, and adapting as best they can to the new situation, often in order to continue to provide vital services to their communities. 

Clean Break’s immediate pandemic response projects have been designed to meet their members’ urgent needs. Within four weeks of lockdown starting, an alternative programme of work had been developed adapted to the new conditions- a mixture of theatre and wellbeing activities: one to one support, provision of digital tech to those in greatest need, and food and care packages. Similarly, Slung Low quickly mobilised to meet need in their local community in Leeds under Alan Lane’s mantras of ‘Be Useful, Be Kind’ and ‘Say Yes to Everything’. First of all they addressed urgent requirements for support to people for daily tasks such as walking dogs, fetching shopping, ringing people up, and picking up prescriptions. When it became clear that many people just needed food, Slung Low set up an independent, non-means-tested self-referral food bank which has given out a phenomenal 6500 boxes to date. In addition they have set up a community street art exhibition and put on an outdoor show early on in lockdown (on the back of a lorry, headphone technology, audience in tents).

Kara McKechnie reminded us that taking on civic responsibility of this kind has always been a traditional and historical role of theatres. Theatres have been shelters for bombed out people during WWII; after the devastation wreaked by the earthquake in Izmit, Turkey in 1999, the theatre in that town became shelter and soup kitchen; while in the midst of the refugee crisis in Germany in 2015 theatre spaces and theatre ensembles played their part in providing welcome and basic amenities, whilst also playing a crucial part in emerging inter-cultural initiatives. 

Theatres also have an important political part to play, what Kara McKechnie best expressed through the German terms Zivilcourage (civic courage, i.e. being brave in public, taking a stand), and Ziviler Ungehorsam (civic disobedience i.e. peacefully disobeying rules or authority on the basis of ones beliefs or values). Here, Javeria K Shah’s provocation invited us to explore the crucial role of the arts in drawing attention to experiences of the oppressed. Understanding and expressing these lived experiences brings into focus those who are excluded from society and those who benefit from it. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic has led to a lot of hand-wringing within the arts. Alan Lane’s account of Slung Low’s first pandemic show highlighted the tensions that many theatre companies feel at this time. Completing the risk assessment for the show, he was suddenly struck by the thought of whether theatre should be a necessary risk in the pandemic? And who theatre was necessarily excluding- “What is the point of producing theatre if people are too faint with hunger to turn up? Is this an act of cruelty?”. 

These dilemmas appeared to be shared by many participants at the event. One comment in the chat really stuck with me: “I’ve gone back and forth so many times between ‘stay where you are and make a change’ and ‘quit the arts and retrain as a paramedic’. It’s so complicated.” Looking at the personal risks that frontline workers have had to take during this pandemic has perhaps made us all think – ‘Am I doing the most useful job I can do?’ This attunes with findings from wider research by Deborah Dean on professional actors and their feelings of not being useful, so perhaps the pandemic seems to be magnifying something that already runs through common theatre-world discourses.

The thing is, as Anna Hermann so clearly stated, art and civic purpose shouldn’t be separated, they are intertwined. For her, giving food, being community, have always been an integral part of Clean Break’s artistic process. They are adapting because they are responding to current priorities, but the only way they function is to recognise the whole person: laughter, joy and art is central to why women come to Clean Break but around that is the care. For Alan Lane, there wasn’t a choice to be made - he acknowledges that Slung Low could have closed, they could have furloughed everyone. But this was emphatically not an option for them - they had a civic responsibility to continue, to do what they could, most importantly because they could not sit by and do nothing at this time of crisis and come back when it was all over as if nothing had happened. 

One of the scaffolding questions asked by discussant (and Women/Theatre/Justice project team member) Sarah Bartley was whether people felt that the pandemic had led to movement in the sector towards an increased civic purpose. And here, there genuinely seemed room for optimism. Certainly there have been what Kara McKechnie identified as lightbulb moments: small acts of kindness, potentiality of different platforms, recognition of reliance on freelancers, inventive use of public spaces and use of digital modes to connect beyond geographical boundaries. Dominant narratives which have traditionally devalued care have been destabilised by the pandemic, which offers hope for change. Anna Hermann too highlighted the way that community work that has been going on in theatres has traditionally been at the periphery of the main action and not given a lot of value, but through the profile of pandemic has led to new visibility and links being made that she hopes will be valued and supported going forward. 

There’s lots of talk at the moment of ‘building back better’ and let’s hope that this is also the case in the arts sector. Perhaps all arts organisations should have a portfolio of ‘civic’ activities? Or maybe all art has an integral civic purpose and it doesn’t need to be explicitly highlighted? Perhaps if there is recognition that art and civic purposes are connected, there need not be as Alan Lane commented ‘such a gap between publicly funded art and what people actually need’.

I will end with a selection of comments from participants put in the written Chat section, in answer to the question “The civic role of the arts IS…?”

•    to show solidarity;
•    to be adaptable to the needs of their communities;
•    to bring us roses. But we can’t eat roses. So let it be bread and roses, until we all have bread;
•    to keep on telling us truths so we can see things to change them;
•    to respond to the immediate need of the communities;
•    to resist the overpowering structures of bureaucracy;
•    to use imagination as a weapon;
•    to show the potential of how the arts can be a more civic part of our lives;
•    to give everyone opportunities to explore other worlds, to understand ourselves, our reactions and our feelings and to give meaning to existence.