Theatre 2016 – a few reflections


I was going to pitch this somewhere and reach a wider audience, but I’ve not published much on this site and there’s no harm in driving a little traffic my way for a change…

Lady Lanyard

Lady James has spent the last couple of days at the Theatre 2016 Conference. (Give me a drop-down menu and I WILL USE IT.) I was there to listen and learn. I’m not a theatre industry insider. I work as a researcher and consultant across a wide panorama of cultural sector niches. I’m a jack of all niches. Lady Jack of all niches.

I thought the conference was good. The speakers were unrelentingly engaging and pretty diverse. I saw plenty of new faces, new to me at least. I hadn’t ‘heard it all before’. Content and commentary from the conference is all over the web. I’ll spare you the details here. Naturally, there were a few technical and logistical hiccups. But on the whole I think the organisers could call it a success.

One little footnote to the conference sparked my attention. And I only know about it because of the parallel life I have on social media. I want to talk about a curious and righteous incandescence that emerged about the cost of attending the conference, and how that made it exclusionary. It’s not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it did interest me, and it’s unlikely the organisers, sponsors or partners will deign to ‘feed the trolls’, well-intentioned though they may be.

I arrived at Theatre 2016 on day one, just as Dan Rebellato was wrapping up his presentation on new research into the hopes and fears of people in the theatre profession. We then heard from a few sector leaders about their own hopes and fears for theatre in 2016. Alistair Smith (editor of The Stage – for whom I occasionally write deprecating policy commentaries) said that ‘people’ were the source of both his hopes and his fears. For Alistair, hope came in the form of enthusiasm, passion and overall good cheer that his colleagues and contemporaries radiate every day. However, this ‘vocational’ approach to the work-life of the sector also contained the bases for Alistair’s fears: the ease with which people can be exploited (and permit that exploitation), the sometimes inward-looking and circular nature of the labour market, and the risk of a general lack of perspective.

And so it came to pass that the people problems began to surface… by day two of the conference a little rumbling on social media had grown in energy to form a substantial little twitterstorm. By the end of the day, toys were well and truly out of the pram, hashtags were hijacked, petitions were launched. Why? Because the conference cost over £400 to attend. Let me get straight to the point and explain why I think this is a slightly ridiculous thing to complain about:

£400 is pretty standard for a multi-day industry conference.

Getting inside the Museums Association conference will cost you £495. The Arts Marketing Association conference costs £672 to attend. I could go on and on and on. You can do the calculations yourself on how much it costs to put on such things. And if the organisers want to risk a financial loss, they are surely entitled to a profit if it succeeds. Anyway, Theatre 2016 was hardly a Theatreland Bilderberg or a Dramaturg’s Davos. This was David and Mari (BON Culture) scraping together contacts, friends, funding and sector bodies to devise something new, something unusual. Why the rage?

The theatre world comprises a extremely diverse bunch of people with an even more diverse set of worldviews. From multi-millionaire impressarios who will dash across the Atlantic to shaft the poor, to countless ultra-leftie types who stoke revolution through every bit of devised street theatre. The extremes are easy to mock on a lazy friday night, but a sector-wide conference needs to try and speak to all points along this spectrum.

And, the thing is, I didn’t pay £400. I paid £234. I quite reasonably expected the tickets to be subject to a Flash Sale. And indeed they were. So that’s when I got mine. This made it rather cheap for an industry conference. This leaves only two questions: was it exclusionary in any way? And was it good value? Let’s take these in turn.

For me, it was not exclusionary. I have more than £234 in the bank. Whoopie doo. Did the price tag put off anyone else? Of course it did. No money = no ticket. Excluded. This is a shitty position to be in. We’ve all been there. The challenge for us all is how to bring down the cost of this thing and balance the content to keep the capitalists and the socialists happy. Not everyone wants to spend a day discussing the theatre in some Occupy-style encampment with organic recycled mung beans complaining about Big Panto and the Musical-Industrial Complex. Nor is there any reason to make this a flashy retreat for the theatre 1%.

We freelancers are acutely aware of the value of our time. We need to be smart in how we spend our money. We need to be confident of returns on any investments in ourselves. If you are lucky enough to have £234 to spend (admittedly more if travel and accommodation are involved) I guess it’s still possible to think it’s an offensively large sum of money for a two-day theatre circle-jerk. The cry was that the cost excluded independent artists and freelancers. If you are an independent freelancer and have nothing set aside for training and development then you are going to have a tough time making a success of your business. Admittedly, I didn’t rinse every ounce of value from the two days, I got a bit distracted engaging with an avalanche of sexy Twitter spambots (who caught wind of a trending hashtag). Some rather sub-optimal freelancing, there. For someone else it might have yielded some fruitful collaborations or new bits of work. For me, I thought on the whole, the conference did deliver at least £234’s worth of value.

Okay. Enough. Line drawn. Let’s be generous. Let’s think about opening up Theatre 2017. Livestream the whole thing? Go ahead. But that’s going to cost more money. Offer more concessions and bursaries? Sure. But that cranks up the price for everyone else, or taps into the taxpayer’s wallet should the Arts Council get more involved. None of this is lowering the cost. Maybe the sponsors could be leaned on for more cash? I’m short on imaginative solutions here.

The conference was organised with the tagline: “for everyone who cares about the future of theatre”. Seems like a sensible thing to suggest if you have tickets to sell. BON Culture certainly helped create a sense of FOMO. Looks like it worked, for good or ill. With Theatre 2016, this fledgling consultancy took a risk. Their qualified success is to be welcomed, but from a distance it was perhaps a painful thing to witness. I’m still not entirely sure why. But I’m all out of words. See you at Theatre 2017.


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