Friday, January 18, 2013

Interview with the Oxford Culture Review


Challenge Vaizey: An Interview with Fin Kennedy
Following a meeting with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, award-winning UK playwright Fin Kennedy is running a campaign to raise governmental awareness of the effects of arts funding cuts upon theatres. Leah Broad spoke to him about the project and the importance of the arts in Britain.

To anyone who doesn’t know about your campaign – what are you trying to achieve, and who can get involved?

Last month I met Culture Minister Ed Vaizey at a Writers’ Guild event at Parliament. He claimed that the recent round of swingeing cuts to public investment in the arts were having no impact at all on the development of new plays in the UK. I knew from my own experience of seeing the theatre industry I work in contracting all around me that this wasn’t true, but there are surprisingly few facts and figures available. Vaizey said he would look over any evidence I could send him that the cuts were hurting new plays and playwrights. So I’ve written to theatre companies around the country with a survey about their experiences. I’ve been overwhelmed with the response – a blog article I wrote went viral and I’ve been inundated with offers of help. An Oxford PhD research student, Helen Pickford, came forward to help me structure the questions; she has also kindly volunteered to help crunch the data once it comes in, and to write it up into a form that will appeal to DCMS civil servants. The Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner has agreed to publish our findings, while The Stage newspaper, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row and Vaizey’s opposite number Shadow Culture Minister Dan Jarvis MP have all asked to be kept informed. All in all it’s taken off in a way I never expected. It’s tapped into some real anger in the theatre industry about the Government misunderstanding our value and how we work. 

The deadline is very close but theatres or playwrights can take part by getting in touch: finkennedy@yahoo.co.uk. There’s also a longer article about the campaign on my blog here.

What do you feel the arts contribute to our society and economy that make them so important to fund and teach?

The arts are important on so many levels. This is usually boiled down to three arguments: ‘economic’, ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’. Economic is obviously about money – study after study has shown how important to the economy spending on the arts is, especially in the regions. The arts budget is tiny – 17p per person, per week. Yet a 2010 study by the government’s own Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills showed that the creative industries provide six per cent of Britain’s GDP, £16 billion in exports, and employ at least 2 million people. Former Culture Minister Ben Bradshaw once quoted a study which showed that every pound spent on the arts generates five in the wider economy. Critics of state investment in the arts often say it’s a choice between the arts and hospital beds. In fact the opposite is true – the arts pay for those hospital beds.

‘Intrinsic’ is about the inherent artistic value in any creative work – its beauty, its effect on the viewer, its capacity to sum up profound experiences, or play ideas off against one another to generate new understandings of ourselves and of the world around us. This is obviously harder to quantify but undoubtedly exists. As Albert Einstein put it: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

And then there’s ‘instrumental’ – the effect the arts can have on individuals and society. This is perhaps most apparent in schools, and it helps to replace the word ‘arts’ with ‘creativity’. Because the arts aren’t just a career, or a fun night out, they’re a mode of thinking which can help us find new solutions to problems, and equip us for an unknown future. Creativity and the capacity to innovate are really at the core of any healthy society and economy, and indeed could arguably be said to be one of the core elements of the human condition. The problem is, their effects aren’t always immediately obvious, and we have a Government in power which is obsessed with short-term goals. If something doesn’t have an immediate application or make an immediate profit then it gets cut. It’s terribly short-sighted.

Nurturing creativity in the young is like installing the software on which all the other information they are absorbing will run. It is about independent thinking, making new connections, finding new solutions – and with Drama in particular you can add in that it nurtures articulacy, self confidence, stage presence, empathy, emotional intelligence and an understanding of conflict, cause and effect and audience psychology as well. Will studying GCSE Drama get a child a job as an actor? Probably not. Will it give them the skills to shine in any job interview which comes their way? Almost certainly. But the current Secretary of State for Education is blind to these wider applications – hence the absence of all arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate. It’s a betrayal of a generation, and displays a profound ignorance of the complex ecosystem of a child’s development.

I’ve been leading The Writer’s Guild response to the EBacc consultation, there’s a full briefing on my blog here.

In what way do you think that the proposed funding cuts would cause irreparable damage to the British theatre industry?

Theatre is hugely profitable, but the problem is that you never know where the next hit is going to come from, so you have to seed many more projects than will ultimately come to fruition. But it only takes one hit to pay off all that early R&D – look at the international success of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, Tom Morris’s War Horse, or Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors. There were perhaps ten or twenty projects seeded alongside each of these which didn’t work, to generate one which did. It’s a quirk of any innovative business that the R&D costs are front-loaded, look at the amount that a creative company like Apple invests in it. Yet for some reason this Government thinks this is valid in the private sector but not in the public sector.

It’s not as if it even costs them anything. VAT receipts on West End box office sales alone outstrip state investment in theatre – nationwide. All we ask is that the Government get their sums right. From Shakespeare onwards, theatre is one of our greatest cultural products which consistently generates big returns, both in tax and in cultural prestige. Just look at the proportion of British shows which clean up at Broadway’s Tony Awards in New York every year. Whether you’re a theatre-lover or not isn’t the point, cutting investment in it simply makes no economic sense when we’re trying to re-start the economy.

And if you do love theatre, then you should be worried about the effects on the amount of new plays that will make it through at all if we hack at the sector’s roots. It’s small companies, those in the regions and those working in the inner cities and with young people who are worst affected – but these are the feeder channels for the rest of the industry. If we close these access points for new talent we’ll simply fall back on tried-and-tested commercial product like ‘jukebox musicals’ and other bland fare. The art form will stagnate if new voices can’t make it through. There won’t be any more Jerusalems. It really is as simple as that.

How do you think universities (such as Oxford) could help to campaign for promoting the importance and social relevance of the arts?

The recession means we’re all having to work together more closely and I see this as an opportunity. Universities have great resources at their disposal to offer arts organisations which wouldn’t cost them much to offer out – such as access to libraries and specialists for research-led projects, to rehearsal space, to fully-equipped theatres, to hundreds of bright and eager students. I lecture at Goldsmiths College but I also write for schools and young people’s companies in inner London. Recently, I took a group of 11 Masters degree Playwriting students into Islington Community Theatre (ICT) to write short plays for a module on Writing for Teenagers which I lead. The Goldsmiths students were thrilled to have this opportunity as part of their learning and ICT got a bunch of plays out of it, at no cost, with their young people’s voices at their heart.

I’ve just finished writing my own play for a school in east London and they’re teaming up with People’s Palace Projects at Queen Mary University to co-direct, design and market the production. The school students will perform at the University’s theatre and the Uni students can volunteer for or study this process of applied drama.

When these sorts of collaborations work well they’re a brilliant two-way street; arts organisations get a share of Universities’ physical resources and manpower, Uni students get professional experience and links with industry, and inner city young people get friendly and accessible contact with Higher Education. And it all costs hardly anything – the ingredients are all there. It just takes a creatively-minded individual to bring them together. I’m a big advocate of artists taking that role. As freelancers we’re in a strong position to broker those relationships between organisations we all already have links with anyway. I’ve written more about this in the Guardian in the past couple of years, here and here.

What would it have meant to you not to have creative subjects on your syllabus at GCSE level – would it have changed your outlook on school and future career?

All careers start in the classroom and mine was no exception. It was doing Drama in school that got me hooked, which I then turned into professional qualifications at GCSE, A-level and eventually a BA and then a Masters degree. That touch-paper which contact with the arts in school ignited gave me the passion and confidence to explore extra-curricular opportunities such as youth theatres and approaching professional theatres for paid work. It’s all interconnected, but it starts in school. Take that away and whole career paths and life directions disappear with it. It’s why I continue to do so much work in schools myself. You can change lives far more regularly than you can sat in a theatre auditorium.

For more arts campaigning, please visit (amongst others) Bacc for the Future, working for the arts as the sixth pillar of the EBacc, or Arts Emergency, a charity aiming to provide active support for arts education in Britain. We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture