PROPOSITION: Tommo Fowler makes a play to get state sponsoring for the stage
Theatre can be roughly split into two categories: commercial and subsidised. Commercial theatre fuses art with the rampant Capitalist machine, while its subsidised cousin relies upon state handouts partially bankrolled by the hundreds of thousands of people who probably have no interest in it. This is a huge topic at the moment thanks to the government’s systematic decimation of public funding for the arts, stemming from Ed Vaizey’s belief that art should prove its worth. It is screamingly obvious that the benefit of culture is unquantifiable by normal measures, so the notion of valorising artistic output is close to absurd. Yet this, according to Vaizey, is what theatre must do if it is to regain its funding.
Sir Nick Hytner (outgoing Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre) is – predictably – in favour of subsidy, and has made many a compelling case for the arts to have secure and plentiful public funding. One of the most persistent examples he gives, picked up by many commenting on the same subject, is the contrast between the output of West End theatres (commercial) and those like the National, Royal Court or Royal Shakespeare Company (subsidised). The former house vast productions (often on transfer from Broadway) which regularly run for decades, have eye-watering ticket prices, and offer a level of glitz very rarely seen anywhere – particularly in these trying economic times. The latter produces a mixture of classic revivals and urgent new plays which address the world we live in; often, they specifically engage with the communities local to that theatre (particularly evident in regional theatres such as Hull Truck, or the Tricycle in Brent). Most importantly, much of this subsidised theatre can be seen for £8-15 if you’re under twenty-five.
New plays, however, are a risk. With little money to spend on anything, let alone an evening of ephemeral enjoyment, audiences want to play it safe and part with their hard-earned cash only for something they’re pretty sure they’ll enjoy. Blissful escapism is seductive, and who can blame a person from wanting to forget the pressures of the job or mortgage repayments for two and a half hours? I can’t, and I’ll say now that I thought Wicked was completely brilliant. However, such plays usually do not provoke thought, they do not prompt discussion with those around us, and they often do not hold a mirror up to us (which, as those from Aristotle to modern neuroscientists have said, is what draws people to the theatre in the first place).
Yet subsidy does not necessarily give the polar opposite of this and flood theatres with pretentious morons writhing about in masks and serving nothing but their own inflated sense of self-importance. In fact, three of Britain’s most commercially and critically successful theatrical endeavours have been Matilda: The Musical (based on Roald Dahl’s book), Warhorse, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s popular children’s novel by the puppet company Handspring, and – most recently – Simon Stephens’ version of Mark Haddon’s classic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time; all of these were made possible only through the support of state subsidy. The writers and directors acknowledge that, had they the constant pressure of a deadline or profit margin, their creativity would have been stifled and the end ‘product’ far less compellingly inventive.
At Oxford, the pro rata funding system allows student production companies to make profit which can then be used to fund further plays, or simply to make producers feel terribly impressive and successful. This is brilliant in many ways, but it drives exactly the aforementioned focus on money rather than art. Given that it’s strongly advised for a producer to reinvest their money into the drama society when they graduate, there is literally nothing to be gained by such a motivation. We have the opportunity to work completely from subsidy, within a framework of financial security and limited repercussions if the show is a flop. Oxford students are notoriously loathe to do anything which might fail, but – for those of us intending to pursue a career in theatre when we leave – this is maybe the best thing we can do. No-one outside of the Oxford bubble will care how ignorant students review the production, nor whether it sells out, but they will care that we’ve developed creatively and tried new things – even if all we discover is that miming the story of War and Peace from inside a giant flowerpot actually doesn’t make for a thrilling evening out.
So a word of advice for incoming Freshers, those who want to put something on for the first time, or old-hands who think they know it all: challenge yourself to do something different. Yes, the Dreaming Spires hold much inspiration for beautifully constructed and lyrical theatre – but look outside the city walls and you may find that Blackbird Leys holds the beating heart of human existence. Look Back in Anger is a classic now, but became so because it looked at a part of society which theatre-goers wanted to ignore. A tension is created, a conflict both onstage and in ourselves, and that is where the best drama can be found – but only when we have the freedom to seek it regardless of profit margins.
OPPOSITION: Eleanor Sharman finds fault with the notion of tax-funded theatricals
Pretty much everyone reading this section has two things in common. 1. an Oxford education; 2. an overwhelming, all-consuming, passionate love of theatre and the arts. And hyperbole.
But in all seriousness, we can probably agree that drama is pretty cool and we enjoy going to see it and getting involved. And not just drama – art exhibitions, dance, literature, sculpture, everything. It’s all great. Maybe we’d even like more of it in our lives. There’s no disputing that. But there is some serious disputing to do when it comes to the claim that the state is obliged to pay for our artsy habit.
We’re told that the idea that art ought to prove its worth is damaging. Yet, equally, “culture”, – whatever that elusive beast may be (and I suspect the priority is more often given to Milton than Miley Cyrus) – being regarded as unquantifiable by normal measures is confusing. Why, exactly, should it be so hard to gauge? A well-worn example: we’re all students. Most of us run tight budgets. Most of us make the choice to go to the theatre based on more than just its artistic value; we know that we simply can’t afford to zip off to the Playhouse every night for our daily dose of High Culture. And when we do buy tickets, it’s a transaction like any other. We pay for an experience. The experience might be sublime, it might be radical and even transcendent – it might be more than worth the price of the ticket. But most of us probably wouldn’t pay, say, £100 rather than £10 for it. Its worth is still measured in terms of the opportunity which money affords us.
In all areas of life we succumb to opportunity costs. I might choose to go to Bridge and drink Jägerbombs instead of writing my tute essay. I might choose to watch six episodes of Heroes and eat chocolate instead of going for a run. These are opportunity costs (and probably big ones, painful though it is to admit). To cut off theatre and “culture” as being above all other spheres is idealism taken to an almost unsettling extreme. We find some kind of transcendence in great work and demand that, accordingly, the work be removed from such mundane concerns as finance and budgeting. This is a lovely idea. It really is. I would like free arts as much as the next person. But it isn’t even remotely possible, and to suggest otherwise has some dangerous implications.
Tommo draws our attention to the contrast in output between commercial, for-profit West End theatres and those which receive state subsidy. It’s an important comparison: glitz and glamour vs. the prospect of “classic revivals and urgent new plays”. Granted, it might be unfair to claim that the West End deals solely in extravagant Broadway shows, or that our subsidised theatres never stretch to the opulence of their corporate counterparts. But even if we take the comparison as absolutely accurate, there’s a clear judgement implied: glitzy Broadway is simply not as valuable as, say, a dynamic new interpretation of an old Beckett or Brecht.
The idea is so tempting – Wicked quite clearly does not belong to the same genus as Waiting for Godot, and we do know which one is Objectively Better Theatre. But this is the crux of the problem. We’re still bound by the tired (and very conservative) notions of higher and lower pleasures; by the idea that some drama or literature or artwork is inherently superior to others by virtue of its complexity, its sophistication, or its (usually inseparably) deification as a Great Classic. And we judge accordingly. We judge damningly. We insist that our privileged, “educated” preference ought to be upheld at the expense – a very literal expense, seeing as we’re demanding that some of the poorest in society fund our leisure – of those who frankly couldn’t give a damn about Ayckbourn and would much rather spend their cash on items of their own choosing.
The opposition is right. We are privileged to have a pro rata system in Oxford. It gives us the incredible and beautiful chance to experiment, to push theatrical boundaries, to make mistakes and make discoveries. But our risks cost benefactors; people who have chosen to allow us to make these mistakes, and given us the opportunity to make these discoveries. As students, we’re given finance through OUDS or underwriting funds because people want us to learn, and don’t mind if we cock up. They don’t mind if our produce is just miming the story of War and Peace from inside a giant flowerpot*.
But we can’t expect that kind of privilege from the general public. We don’t get to demand that they carry on funding our experiments. Nobody has the right to sequester public spending for projects which are – let’s face it – enjoyed only by a tiny, already privileged minority of the population.
So yes, freshers, for pity’s sake experiment. For pity’s sake, take the risks. And no, not just to give us fodder for sarcastic columns in the student paper. Experiment because we are all seriously lucky to have the chance to do so. Oxford likes to throw money at theatre. But we cannot, and should not, force the rest of the country to do the same.
*The Burton Taylor Studio accepts bids before 6th week of every term.