Dragan KlaicResetting the Stage: Public Theatre Between the Market and Democracy. Extracts.
This book is not about the survival of theatre in the economic recession- although its shadow looms heavily over the following chapters- but about the notion of public theatre, non- commercial and thus subsidised, its distinct virtues, values and benefits. The argument I will put forward is that, under increased competition from commercial theatre and the profit- making cultural industry, public theatre needs to reinforce the specific features that qualify it for public support. Why? So that its critical stance can galvanize civil society and shape various communities of concern. Each- non commercial performing arts organisation needs to stress its unique chracter, make its products and service as as specific as possible, as well as challenging and confrontational, in order to create rich educational, discursive and social opportunities for the public around its productions. Standardisation of the programme, repertoire and product, as well as imitation of commercial theatre and its practices, deprive public theatre of its distinctiveness and ultimately de- legitimise its claim to public support. At the same time, I will also argue against an automatic entitlement of public subsidy on the part of performing arts organisations, just because they claim a high artistic quality or a venerable history. Istead, public subsidies should be allocated on the basis of firm criteria that go beyond artistic excellence, in a tough but fair competition. A new covenant between politics and public culture would be quite demanding on performing arts organisations because public support would not be based on tradition and historic relationships with the government and not on an abstract idea of public-service mission or representational concerns but on symetric investment in and the encouragement of synergies, partnerships, mobility innovation and audience development.
I hope this book will be read by present and future performing arts professionals, but also by board members of cultural organisations and civil servants, politicians and officers of private foundations, who all determine support for public theatre, shape objectives, insert criteria and design procedures; by corporate executives buried under an avalanche of sponsorhip requests; and also journalists who in their coverage of the performing arts might miss the cultural- policy context and a comparative European perspective. My aim has not been to write an academic book but a polemica one. Consequently, I sought to keep references to a minimum and yet insert a range of examples and cases from all four corners of Europe and refer to ongoing theatre developments as reported by the media. These examples are offered in order to support and specify my argument, but a reader in search of a quicj overview may want to ignore them and avoid being distracted by them. For this reason they are given in a different font from the main text. By rethinking the prospects for public theatre in Europe, I am returning to my favorite topic, explored elsewhere in my writing (Klaic 2005,2007a): the emergence of an integrated public space in Europe, dynamic and inclusive, as well as sensitive to the local contingancies and aware of the larger world, reinforcing the link between the culture and citizenship. Theatre has been exploring this realtionship since its origins in Athens 2500 years ago. It has experienced formidable impotrance and public loyalty in some periods, whenever it questioned and reshaped values, probed the modes and rules of social life and rejected fatalism in the name of imagination. Hopefully, theatre can continue to perform all these functions in our globalised world of digital culture and electronic communication, integrated world markets and casino capitalism.
The specific merrits of public theatre
In itself, there is nothing wrong with the overwhelming success of the commercial theatre, run as a legitimate business, providing employment for many and satisfying millions of spectators. Upon entering a theatre lobby, an audience may often not know whether they are coming to a commercial or publicly subsidised venue and show, although they perhaps expect a rather steeper ticket price to give them a hint. During the last two decades, public theatre often imitates the commercial theatre in its repertoire and style of publicity, hoping the boost box office income, with the result that theese two realms of the performing arts might not appear so very different at first glance. Many subsidised programmed venues offer a mix of commercially produced and and subsidised shows. Aesthetically and intellectually speaking, commercial theatre can be criticised for its clichés and formulas, for its sentimentality and escapist fantasies, for its fascination with stardom, success and instant glory that shun complexity and eliminate critical stances. Its products belong to the cultural industry that has becomew one of the most propulsive branches of contemporary capitalism, dealing with ideas, images and heroes that produce and globally distribute experience opportunities in a variety of intelocking media with considerable profitability.
Nevertheless, from the point of view politics, and especialy of cultural policy, the success of commercial theatre undermines public theatre and makes the need for public subsidies less self- evident.
Why does one company or venue depend on public subsidy if a private producer in the same city can successfully make theatre without any subsidy and even make a profit? The answear to this question is not only complex and convoluted but it also invokes the priority of artistic impulse over the money- making drive. It rests on innovation and artistic renewal rather than the perpetuation of standard products. It reiterates the value of artistic risk taking, of diversity of artistic expression against the uniforming pressures of a commercial cultural industry that imposes fixed templates and formats. It invokes the need to discover and nurture young talents, who are given the privilege of playing alongside experienced peers and learning from them, rather than foregrounding only stars and treating everyone else on the stage as part of the set.
In addition, there are arguments of an intellectual and civic order. Without absolute dependance on the box office, public theatre can deal with obscure and not very appealing topics, unlike the commercial theatre, which must focus on typical situations and narratives rehash stereotypical plots. Public theatre articulates critical stances towards reality rather than offering escapist fantasy. It can advocate unpopular views , break taboos, engage in historical revisionism and debunk mythologies, stir up controversy and initiate a public debate; the commercial theatre stays away from any controversial matter and reduces the twists and challenges of human existence to a few predictable patterns, to common denominators, to a schmaltzy, self-serving triumph of the good guys over the bad ones, of love conquering jealousy and hatred, of justice affirmed over evil and wrongdoing.
While commercial theatre gathers a large audytorium of people willing and able to pay good money for their own entertainment, public theatre brings together a diverse micro- society of individuals, groups and constituencies, who might be aware of their substantial differences. and discords bt come to the public theatre to have them sharply articulated and challenged Public theatre can group and even mobilise the partisans of a cause, but needs to take into account the adversaries and the dissenters in the complex arena of public opinion. Public theatre is about free enquiry in a democracy; commercial theatre is about making money in a mass leisure market. An audience in a subsised theatre is a micro-comunity of citizens, engaged in a deliberative democracy, whereas in commercial theatre it is a group of consumers paying to be amused. Commercial theatre infaltes hits to boost the box office; public theatre addresses various interests and tastes in local community and allows for specific artistic niches to be set up and made sustainable.
All these distinctions of principle and all the arguments for public theatre and its qualifications for public subsidy are all well- known and often reiterate the contrast with commercial theatre in a sharp, clear- cut manner. For performing arts professional and all others who put them forward, these arguments reflects a conviction, a self- evide truth, but also vested interest on the part of all those who work in public theatre or depend on it. The most important question is: Do all these arguments persuade politicans to sustain public subsidesfor theatre? And if yes, for how long?
Those who work in commercial theatre do not have much interest in this argument They might point out that their sort of theatre is also familiar with unexpected shifts and turns, take occasionaly less popular themes and stances, affirms new values and norms, caters to a varied audience, finds evidence of its own essential humanity in its capacity to provoke popular enthusiasm for The Lin King and similar shows in a variety of cultures and sociopolitical sircumstances on different continents. But ultimately, the proffesionals of commercial theatre know that they need public theatre as their own research and development department, a nursery for upcoming talent and a source of information from which they ultimately benefit. Yes, public theatre with its subsidised ticket prices is certainly a competitor as well, drawing away some of the potential audience they could otherwise perhaps recruit, but there are enough other potential spectators to engage. When all is said and done, commercial theatre operators know that they are allied with powerful cultural industry complex of entertainment and they drive their strength and propensities from it, not from government support. If the government keeps taxes down and does not embark on additional regulation of the showbiz industry , of its labour relations and especially of public and occupational safety in their venues, everything is hunky-dory. They prefer to depend on the fickle and risky market rather rhan on a judgemental government.
Since culture in Europe is heavily influenced by the cultural industry of the United States, analogies between the performing arts systems on the two coninents are often too easily drawn. The traditions and contexts are markedly different, however. In the United States, theatre has traditionally been considered a matter of private entertainment for which the public needs to pay the full price, without expecting any government support. On this premise the performing arts have blossomed asshow business of succes, fame and wealth at hand. From the early nineteenth century celebrated European actors embarked on strenuous US tours in order to earn a geat deal of money in commercial terms. Only in the 1930s did President Roosevelt’s administration decide to support the performing arts with taxpayers’ money, in a broader government effort tu pull the country out of the Great Depression by boosting the pubic employment of all professions, inclding the arts. After only three years, the remarkably succesful Federal Theatre was de-funded and dismantled by the US Senate, which saw it as a source of communist indoctrination (Mathews 1967). More than 30 years later, the US government reconnected with the performing arts as a beneficiary of President Johnson’s Great Society effort, through a very modest grant programme, offered to non- profit arts organisations and individual artists by the new National Endowment for the Arts (NEA, www.nea.gov), state arts agencies and the grant programmes of of a few enlightened cities. Non-commercial theatre spread accross the United States and profited from this government support, especially under President Nixon, when the NEA budget was at its peak. Since this government grants have been very modest and difficult to obtain, non-commercial thatre has remined dependent on the box office, corporate sponsorship and especially on the donations of individuals and private foundations, encouraged by generous tax write-off laws (Martel 2006).
In Europe, however, a markedly different tradition prevails. Reliance of theatre on public subsides goes further back to aristocratic patronage, extended since the Renaissance, embodied in the Comedie-Francaise (1680) and Vienna Burgtheater (1741) as court and state theatres, continued through the investment of the emancipated middle classes and some municipal authorities since the eighteenth century and reaffirmed by the ideology of nationalism and the national theatre movement of the nineteenth century. The provisions created after World War II saw theatre as a legitimate beneficiary of the welfare state and instrument of cultural democratisation in Western Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, in the communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, theatre thrived as a powerful medium of the ideological indoctrination of the masses. Since the end of the Cold War and the victory of belief in the free market with its accompanying predominance of neo- liberal ideology, public theatre everywhere across Europe has been feeling vulnerable and meaced, and the public support it has been enjoying for decades has come to appear as a less self-evident privilege than before. The success ofcommercial theatre isincreasingly perceived as destabilising and delegitimising ; hence the steady flow of arguments propounding public theatre’s merits, some of which have already been invoked above.
Starting from these arguments in the belief that most of them make sense in principle- or are valid under some specific circumstances – the following chapters examine the structural weaknesses of public theatre in Europe and seek to identify systemic solutions and specific strategies that could make it more vital, vibrant and appealing, whilst at the same time recognisably distinct from the commercial stage. Public subsidy can be neither an entitlement nor a renewable privilege; it should rather be a support extended in recognition of clear public benefit delivered by non-commercial theatre, conscious of its core responsibilities and specific remit.