Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Amateur Theatre in the Age of Austerity

I've been rather busy lately, hence the absence. I'll do a proper update with news some other time, but here is something to keep you occupied in the meantime. Over the summer, I did an interview with Stage Talk TV, the cable channel aimed at the Amateur Theatre sector. My publisher Nick Hern Books arranged it, because it turns out my play How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found is in their Top Ten most licensed plays for amateur performance, which is great. A bit surprising, but great.

Those of you who are sick of hearing about How To Disappear might want to stop reading at this point. To be honest, I'm a little bit sick of it myself. But it sort of won't leave me alone. I'm called on to talk about it in various guises, because it continues to have the most extraordinary afterlife. Its popularity with student and amateur groups is just the latest.

Anyway, I had intended to do a longer blog about what I think the enduring appeal of the play is, including some interviews with some of the amateur companies who continue to stage it. I will do that at some point, but I don't have time at the moment (with apologies to those of you who were kind enough to answer my questions - perhaps I will do something for the play's five year anniversary next year.)

Instead, here is a piece Stage Talk asked me to write, a message to the Stage Talk community. They asked me to write something to accompany the episode. I sent it to them and then I don't think they put it up. Or if they did I can't find it. Maybe it was a bit too long. Or too political. Or maybe they just thought it was rubbish. You can be the judge of that, and leave some anonymous abuse in the comments section if you like.

You can also watch the episode of Stage Talk in which they interview me here (scroll down to Episode 5). It is an hour long though, and I only feature for 8 minutes of it. But I found it interesting to see what else is going on in the amateur theatre sector, which is apparently bucking the recession and as lively as ever. That's great news for writers. (In fact, one of my other projects seeks to capitalise on that, of which more news another time.)

Of course, if you're too busy to watch an hour-long missive from the UK's amateur sector, then Nick Hern Books helpfully cut and pasted my section into their YouTube channel, and you can watch that here. It would be very naughty to do that though. You really should watch the whole thing.

Anyway, here is my mysteriously unpublished statement to the Stage Talk community. I hope some of them find it and read it here.

A note for the Stage Talk community from Fin Kennedy

Thanks to everyone in the Stage Talk community who has staged my plays or is thinking of doing so. It’s really heartening to see the work having such an active life after its professional premieres. It’s a strange feeling seeing worlds, characters and ideas that once existed only in your head go out there and take on a life of their own in the wider world. There is a line in my most well-known play, How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, about the lead character Charlie, and what will happen to his old identity once he has cast it off and become someone else. A mentor figure, Mike, says to him: “Charlie will always be out there somewhere. Wandering the world. Alone.” The idea is that ‘Charlie’ as an identity will somehow cut the moorings to the physical body he was once attached to, and floats off into the ether, like a ghost.

I think about that sometimes when I get emails from groups producing this play, sending links to images of different Charlies in all his various incarnations. Charlie certainly isn’t alone any more, in fact there seems to be a whole army of him. The idea of ‘Charlie’ – and indeed the whole play he is a part of – has taken on a life of its own, beyond the writer who first invented him. That character, that play, and all the ideas within it, are in the theatrical ‘bloodstream’ now, completely independently of me.

It’s a surreal phenomenon, and one that I think is unique to writing plays for the stage. Novels, films and poems of course have their own afterlives, but not in the same living, breathing way as plays. In that sense, professional productions are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the amateur and student communities that judge whether a play makes it into the nation’s consciousness, and lives on. The amazing thing is that this process happens completely organically, like a natural democracy, operating by some sort of silent impulse towards a consensus, its mechanism unseen and unknown.

At a time when state investment in the arts has never been under such fierce attack, I take heart from this. It proves to me that theatre and creativity are in our DNA, as a species. Like other things that we strive for and are prepared to invest in collectively – good health, quality education, transport to connect us – access to culture also speaks to something deep within us, without which we are less complete. Human beings seem to hunger for stories – to hear, to tell, to re-enact. Theatre allows us to do this together. In doing so, we strengthen our communities, the bonds between us, and also our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

It is hard to make the case for continued investment in these things in an age of austerity. But as any well-structured play will show you, it’s when times get tough that characters come into their own. Sometimes they triumph, sometimes they fail. But by going on that journey with them, we all end up better equipped to take on the challenges in our own lives.

We may not have the same urgent claim on the public purse as schools or hospitals. But at its best, theatre provides the next level up – a reason to get educated and stay healthy. In the darkest days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill, when confronted with a proposal to cut culture to aid the war effort, famously asked: “Then what are we fighting for?”

Make no mistake, the arts in the UK are under attack from this government. But it is communities like Stage Talk that they will listen to – ordinary taxpayers, voters, and families across the country who love and value stories and culture. You probably already use your local theatre or arts centre. Please continue to do so – and to encourage others. If cuts are proposed, write to the council to see if there isn’t some way to lessen the blow. Lobby your MP about cuts to the Arts Council. Ask them to prove their commitment to the arts by asking them what will happen after this current austerity ends. Indeed, invite your local MP and councillors to your productions. Show them how your lives are enriched by the stories generated by state investment in the arts. It’s you they will listen to.

Keep up the good work.

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