t a time when much of Europe is in financial crisis and Britain is stumbling toward the end of its 40-year membership of the EU, theatre is crying out for original, inventive and collaborative theatre artists, actors with the skills to give the new both meaning and resonance. A focus on the now and the new is therefore a necessary part of a contemporary actor’s vocabulary, and needs to be included in conservatory training if actors are to shape the industry into which they are moving at the same time as reimagining the theatre in which they move.
As financial uncertainty looms and currencies fall, the currency of European theatre has never been more vital. Currency only works when it is current, and in the training of actors relevance holds sway over reverence. Actors need to embrace and promote change; they need the skills and aptitude to function within a continent (and world) that is turning with a bewildering rate of change. Within Europe, shifting political contexts are leading to redefinitions of what acting is and what it might become. These shifts are part of a drift towards theatre as event, towards practice that feels in key ways bespoke. To keep pace with this and to future-proof actor training, conservatories must not only teach students how to act or direct or make conventional theatre to high standards, they also need to provide them with the skills to be self-starting, write business plans, create their own opportunities and work with new forms. For Diane Trevis, the first woman to run a company at Britain’s National Theatre and a teacher of international renown, addressing this means that our new actors must be prepared to wrestle some means of production into their own hands. They will have to generate their own work. Trevis advocates for more emphasis throughout their training on making their own work, seeking out collaborators, developing skills in adaptation, and writing, so as to re-invent and develop a new kind of Poor Theatre for the 21st century — a theatre high on talent and low on resources. Students must have low-tech shows prepared, where all props and costumes can be carried in a suitcase to any venue that will invite them. They should be ready for a theatre of bare boards and little else.1
Austerity cuts are increasingly prevalent in the theatre throughout Europe, and many of these are harsh. Because European theatre companies have become almost exclusively reliant on government funding it is inevitable that they will face increasing challenges in the coming years. Even now, companies that funding bodies call medium-sized are generally small; nearly all exist with one or two members of administrative staff often on temporary or part-time contracts. Citing the need for collaborative teams, the overseeing organization Theatres Trust lists five administrative roles that companies require.2 In reality only the largest companies will come close to this. The internationally lauded UK company Frantic Assembly, for example, has one general manager and an interim administrator, this despite touring work to more than 40 countries. When a company’s staff numbers are low even the smallest cut in funding can be significant. This vulnerability has resulted in fewer theatre companies, as well as changing the way that companies make work. In recent years, the number of not-for-profit theatre companies in Europe has expanded while funded companies have shrunk.3 Most companies have few assets and little in the way of cash reserves. If the funding disappears, most European companies cannot survive in the long term… at least not in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Many companies that are resistant to the necessity of change are already against the wall and falling. The flipside is that new companies that combine successful and innovative approaches to theatre with visionary ideas about the different ways that organizations can be structured are carving out their own new worlds.
No theatre maker looks forward to a reduction in funding, but there are valuable lessons we can learn from a situation of austerity.
Notwithstanding cuts, a handful of subsidized theatres in the United Kingdom have had it very good in recent years. In 1997 the Arts Council’s investment in performing arts organizations was £149 million, rising to £344 million in 2010. Decreasing government settlement meant that even by 2017 the figure was still in the region of £380 million. Thanks to the National Lottery, more than £2 billion of funding flowed into the arts from the middle of the 1990s. Over £1.4 billion of this was spent on brick and mortar, resulting in around one hundred new theatres, galleries and arts centers, while another five hundred buildings enjoyed significant renovation. However, of the capital distributed by the Arts Council in 2015/16, 43% went to just ten institutions,4 and it seems certain that this level of funding will quickly become unsustainable in the face of Brexit and looming austerity cuts.
No theatre maker looks forward to a reduction in funding, but there are valuable lessons we can learn from a situation of austerity. Where one door closes, another opens: turning bad news into good is difficult, but it is something that can be achieved through creativity. If not, we had better all pack up and go home. Perhaps the very term “austerity cuts” causes as much harm as it describes; perhaps the older, Gladstone-popular word “retrenchment” might be a better term: more active, participatory and work-oriented, and it has the appropriate connotations of systematic recovery. Retrenchment means rationalizing the functions of the state, and perhaps we need to see arts-funding in the larger context of techno-economic change. It seems disingenuous to bemoan the fact that a company’s funding is being cut back rather than to consider why funding is automatically required in the first place. If this sounds sacrilegious, we should remember that the development of the arts in the UK was until recently a private matter with only very occasional royal patronage and government intervention. During World War II, primarily to boost morale, the UK government began to get involved in the partial funding of concerts. The Arts Council of England was established only in 1946, in the belief that public investment in the arts would yield both cultural and economic dividends. And it undoubtedly has.
Where the arts are concerned, however, it is a mistake to equate a period of economic recession with a decline in well-being, and to equate financial prosperity with improvement. The reverse is true if one considers that prosperity can breed a false sense of security and wastefulness. In times of recession innovation reigns, and theatrical innovation is never a bad thing. In the last ten years Italian theatre audiences grew by 17%. Spaniards are flooding into theatres in record numbers. In 2016, audience figures in Barcelona were 2.8 million, the highest ever. Ticket sales in Spain increased last year by 8%, bucking a consumer slump that is gripping almost every other sector of Spain’s economy.5 The truth that dare not speak its name is that European theatre is not actually in crisis at all. It just thinks that it is, because it so regularly has been. In almost all cases, and certainly from an audience perspective, things could not be much better. Almost all Spanish and Italian theatres have cut ticket prices and look to provide a more varied offering to their audiences. In the past a theatre that did serious drama was likely to produce only serious drama, a theatre that did dance only did dance. Now Spanish and Italian theatres are mixing plays with ballet and musical concerts, and people are attending in record numbers. This may well be because theatre provides comfort in tough times, but it might also be because theatres are losing the security blanket that allowed, even encouraged them to cater to their own interests rather than those of the communities they serve. That means trimming the administrative fat, to be sure, but it also means focusing hard on quality and on what people actually want.
Looking at UK theatre audiences, we see that females make up the largest percentage of spectators, buying 70% of all theatre tickets and making up 65% of any audience. Women go to the theatre in greater numbers when plays reflect their experiences, and yet most UK theatres are reluctant to produce more than one play each season that is either written by a woman or which has a large cast of female characters. During the period 2010-2016, women only comprised 34% of working UK actors, writers and artistic directors, and only made up 25% of all directors.6 Until recently, the two male directors of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company had never directed a play written by a woman. This seems all the more peculiar when we note that women outnumber men on almost every drama school and university theatre application list. Clearly, there is a market here that every theatre can tap. If UK companies are to survive austerity, however, they’ll need to do more than produce more work by women; they’ll need to think about the very nature of the work itself.
Traditional western performance tends to focus spectators’ attention on sensations in front of them, often through the use of the proscenium arch; other forms expand this model, taking advantage of our ability to simultaneously perceive action arising from multiple directions. Employing spectator-performer proximity and unconventional seating arrangements might be an answer. Breaking the familiarity of frames so that we can focus attention on the ways in which spectators construct meaning might also be an answer. On a political level we might well argue that lasting emancipation does not come from joining in a performance walk from one site to another, nor from holding an artist’s hand in a one-on-one performance, not from watching a play through the eye-holes cut out of a mask and not from structured participation in a forum theatre event. Nevertheless, disruptions and re-imaginings are doing much to usher in new ways of seeing and experiencing theatre. All that we can say for sure is that artistic invention cannot be governed by funding regulations and that subsidy augurs in part against urgency. It has become something of a syndrome in the theatre to blame the funding that isn’t there, the audience that doesn’t come, and the young who couldn’t care. Maybe it is theatre that’s wrong. Maybe we need to do a better job of making theatre that speaks to communities, rather than theatre that speaks to itself. Maybe we should open up the definition of what theatre is. A recession is like a gap appearing in a seemingly impenetrable fence. We worry the fence that has been standing for years is going to collapse and we focus desperately on looking for ways to put things back the way they were. And yet, if we look hard enough, we see that on the other side of the fence is a world we never knew existed. And this world is not necessarily worse. In it, we might disengage with all of those trappings of mimesis that Plato warned us against in 380 BC; we might decry Stanislavski’s System as no longer appropriate or useful for particular kinds of work; we might side with Derrida’s questioning of the possibility of any true understanding of external reality; we might buy into the notion that theatre’s disruption of the written dramatic text is a force for good; we might agree that the absence of a single defining writer’s vision allows theatre to reject false ideas of coherence; we might celebrate the contemporary player as no longer the actor of a role but a performer offering an on-stage presence for our engaged contemplation. Depending on what type of event we desire, we might do all of this and more; yet regardless of choice and regardless of desire, the stage will always catch out the unprepared.
What if, in the spirit of the American Repertory Theatre’s OBERON initiative, European theatres became exciting spaces for events, for local performers, beat poets, sketch artists, dancers, gender-bending sketch troupes and hula-hooping burlesquers?7 What if shows started at midnight? What if they lasted eight minutes, or eight hours? What if theatres became drop-in centers for the homeless? What if rehearsals were always open to the public? What if local communities chose the plays they wanted staged? What if theatres were to move toward spectacle, experience, and event? What if theatres focused less on breaking the fourth wall and focused instead on breaking down the other three? What if? In Europe we assume that theatre needs heavy subsidy to achieve its ideal state; but what if it doesn’t? What if we are misreading theatre’s ideal state? What if? What if theatre was at once epic and intimate? What if it traded on the ability to surprise and delight and perplex and seduce? What if it was fueled not by government subsidy but by energy and confidence, by fragility and beauty, by spirit and risk? What if? The rise in popularity of immersive theatre, seen notably in the work of UK companies such as Punchdrunk and Shunt and championed by Josephine Machon’s significant and scholarly writings, is about more than collapsing the gap between installation art and theatre per se;8 it brings with it the inevitability of participation between performers and spectators. The concept of an audience as a collective that experiences essentially the same work has morphed into spectators whose engagement with performance are radically different and highly individualized. We are seeing this across Europe. The energy spent in drawing spectators into immersive performances in ways that will often shape the direction of the work builds on (and takes us some way beyond) Augusto Boal’s notions of spect-actors, as people who are at once involved in the process of theatre as both spectator and actor, observing and creating dramatic action in the performances they attend.
Immersive theatre reminds us that performance need not be defined in traditional dualities that see actors as active transmitters and spectators as passive receivers; and in many ways the blurring/dissolving of these boundaries foregrounds the transformative power of theatre. At its most effective, both actor and spectator are engaged in an aesthetic relationship that operates as constructive resistance to traditional European views of theatre and which liberates both parties from accepted norms. When theatre is presented as an experiential event rather than a piece of cultural art, and where actors and spectators are not distanced from each other by staging, lighting and convention, it has the potential to become, as Erika Fischer-Lichte sees it, a cultural process of ‘transformation’,9 or, in Richard Schechner’s terms, a process of ‘transportation’, where actors and spectators are co-subjects in the work.10 Neither group is isolated from one another, nor are they locked into one side of the event; rather, as active participants, they generate meaning together. This is the new becoming of European theatre.
Choices and preparation go hand-in-glove, and we know that an actor without the ability to find and act out choices is an actor who will struggle when the lights are bright.
In any context, becoming speaks to a process of coming to be something or of a passing into a state. In the context of theatre, the word implies the process undertaken by an actor to be the character; or at the very least, to go deeply enough into this process to not be the actor. To be, from the outside, thus equates to I am on the inside, and this is an increasingly complex position to adopt. Audiences are more demanding of authenticity than ever before, and this authenticity is not connected solely to an actor’s skill. When it comes to representation, we are increasingly seeing actors who can tell their characters’ stories from personal experience; this corresponds to an emerging sense that a person’s stories are among their most precious possessions and that misusing them can cause genuine hurt and harm. Accordingly, for example, a cisgendered actor playing a transgendered role now reads to many spectators as a form of cultural appropriation, and even of theft. This inevitably leads to a series of ethical issues relating to the self and how actors can and cannot relate to the characters they play. At a time when theatre is needed to heal the scars of rupture, it matters to us, more perhaps than at any point before, that we trust the teller as much as the tale. As noted by scholars such as Duška Radosavljević, European theatre is reveling in a type of deprofessionalization; not in the sense that it is becoming somehow more amateur, but to acknowledge the unwillingness of theatre artists to occupy only one practitioner-profile.11 Combined with kinesthetic, design-focused, and knowingly unstable approaches to performance script, this is creating theatre that is open to and dependent upon input from spectators. The result is theatre as event, as practice which feels both bespoke and participatory. The relationship between tradition and innovation has always been fluid. What for one generation is unusual, for the next may well become standard practice. Within Europe, increasing internationalization and the absence of geographical boundaries has hastened and facilitated a process of assimilation, and this type of purposive eclecticism is being felt in actor training. The idea of a drama school as training for a new breed of actors able to cope with the demands of a new theatre is upon us and has never felt more necessary than now.
Choices and preparation go hand-in-glove, and we know that an actor without the ability to find and act out choices is an actor who will struggle when the lights are bright. The prepared actor can choose to embrace a world where events disconnect, where narrative is sacrificed to ambience and character is abandoned in place of persona. The reverse is not true for the unprepared; for without a working understanding of how events, circumstances and actions create drama, the performer in thrall to the new and only the new will likely fall short when called upon to work within a more traditional dramatic form. From the ashes of Brexit a new theatre will arise, and it will need to be populated by actors who understand technique as much as tone. The growth of European university programs in Acting may well be leading to an excess of actors, but it is also the case, conversely in the face of austerity cuts, that opportunities to act are increasing. The internet has done much to challenge notions of publication, and the proliferation of television and online channels is leading to more and more production opportunities. What these opportunities are not providing is the old repertory theatre model whereby actors honed their craft in a range of plays, roles and character types. This means acknowledging that the time of turning out actors who sit around waiting to be chosen to audition and then chosen again is no longer the smartest game in town, if ever it was.
Actor training has an obligation to produce knowledgeable, investigative, flexible, responsive, resilient, inquiring and innovative performers: graduates who have the potential not just to sustain careers in their discipline of choice but also redefine what theatre might be and what might be done with it. To this end, many European drama schools and universities include innovative practices such as: digital theatre’s fluid coexistence of the live and the mediatized; Indigenous activism and performance; work that challenges the orthodoxies of theatrical content, form and event; the postmodern and the postdramatic. Examples of these forward-thinking institutions include (but are in no way limited to) the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Rose Bruford College, the Goethe Institute and the Helsinki Drama Academy.
Whilst Stanislavski remains the point of departure for much current thinking about training, in some ways the very traditions of artifice and knowing theatricality that his work unsettled have re-emerged in a contemporary European theatre that at times has little or no interest in a fictional fourth wall between actor and audience. They have been unsettled, too, by contemporary technologies which promote ideologies of the present in ever-shifting futuristic forms, by a swath of 21st century technologies with the capacity to present multiple and overlapping versions of the now from different time frames, scales and countries. The UK’s Federation of Drama Schools recently determined to undertake training sessions in order to understand the right of consent and the complexities of permission, ethical caring, appropriate physical contact and personal integrity in and out of classes and the rehearsal room, particularly in circumstances where there is a power imbalance.12 Their guidelines state that “Consent can neither be presumed or expected or given under pressure, by peers or teachers/directors … where there might seem to be or there is an unequal power balance.”13 For those institutions only recently beginning to engage with formal actor training, the ground is shifting before a firm foothold has been established. Committed as many universities are to providing students with contemporary, forward-looking training for contemporary and forward-looking careers, these shifting grounds make for exciting times.
Acting is about optimism and this article ends as it has been constructed, on an optimistic note. None of us knows the future, and yet from a European perspective we can predict that the future of theatre will be about diversity, collaboration and inclusivity; that it will be international and multicultural; discipline-specific and interdisciplinary; fixed and formal, unfixed and fluid; entertaining and socially just; responsible, reflective, unique and rewarding; made for, to and with spectators, in live and mediated contexts that make use of established theatre and non-theatre settings; that it will be fearless and provocative, epic and intimate, durational and fleeting. Conservatories must respond to this. Actor training is always the laboratory for futures only artists can articulate and it is always training for futures that are in flux. The only certainty we can cling to is that nothing is as certain as it seems. Funding cuts are real and they are here. The danger is that, in an attempt to save theatre, we end up defending and bemoaning the loss of the status quo, rather than taking the opportunity to realign the landscape. Actors train in order to show us how these new landscapes might exist.
- Trevis, D. (2011) ‘Are Drama Schools Training Actors for Real Life?’ Guardian October 5th https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2011/oct/05/poor-actors-training-job-opportunities.
- Theatres Trust. (2019) Who works in a theatre?
- Gardner, L. (2016) Squeezed theatre companies are facing the final curtain.
- Knell, J. & Taylor, M. (2017) Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society: remaking the case for the arts, Royal Society of Arts, in http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/pdf/RSA-Pamphlets-Arts_Funding_Austerity_BigSociety.pdf
- John Hooper, G. Tremlett & K. Willsher (2017) Theatre audiences flock to plays despite the economic squeeze. http://concedes.rssing.com/browser.php?indx=1113241&item=4378
- Wakeman, J. (2012) Women Underrepresented in British Theatre.
- Machon’s key texts in this area are Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance (2013) and (Syn)aesthetics: Redefining Visceral Performance (2009)
- Fischer-Lichte, E. and I. J. Saskya. (2008) The Transformative Power Of Performance. London: Routledge. pp 174-175.
- Schechner, R. (2006) Performance Studies: An Introduction 2nd Ed. London: Routledge. p72.
- Radosavljević, D. (2015) ‘10 Traits of Theatre-Making in the 21st Century’ Exeunt. http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/ten-traits-of-theatre-making-in-the-21st-century/
- Snow, G. (2018) Drama schools commit to ethical guidelines to tackle sexual harassment. April 19, 2018. https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2018/drama-schools-commit-ethical-guidelines-tackle-sexual-harassment/