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Theatre Uncut: What We’re Fighting, and What We’re Fighting For

March 29, 2011

On Saturday 19th of March, one week before the major day of demonstrations and direct action in London, a wave of theatre-based activism broke over the UK. Under the banner of ‘Theatre Uncut’, professional, amateur, student and community theatre groups performed a number of plays specially written plays, free of performance rights charges for the duration of the performance, and donated by some of the biggest name writers in the contemporary UK drama scene.

The event received generally favourable reviews in the national media, and the Bedlam Theatre, a student-run space in Edinburgh, was buzzing with a wide audience demographic. As someone with a research interest in theatre activism (I plan to write a PhD on the role of theatre in representing, treating, and combating prejudice against ‘mental illness), I was delighted to see this event happen, and overjoyed to see it make such a success.

However, as with other anti-cuts actions, we must identify what it is about those institutions under threat that we wish to fight for.  The major problem many have with ‘the cuts’ in general is the way in which they have been targeted and ‘sold’ to the electorate. The False Economy blog goes into more detail about the many specific issues with the Coalition government’s economic policy, but the fact remains that those most at risk from it are those who are least capable of bearing that burden; disabled people, those who are unemployed, young people, those on low-to-middle incomes.

In this context, why should we care about theatre? Specifically, why should we care about the subsidized theatre establishment represented by the authors who donated their plays (briefly) to Theatre Uncut. For all the hype surrounding the ‘In-Yer-Face’ plays (for desperate want of a better collective term) of the mid-1990s, the demographic for actually seeing these plays remained fairly fixed – affluent, middle-class professionals who wanted to see what all the fuss about these apparently ‘shocking’ plays (Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking) was. Sure, these plays were challenging, but they assumed a middle-class demographic to either be ‘shocked’ or to nod with agreement at the ‘radical’ politics on display. These plays were never the grassroots, for all their artistic and formal merit and experimentation.

Theatre in the UK is essentially a closed system, even if it is not the slightly caricatured middle-class bastion I suggested in the previous paragraph, and Theatre Uncut mirrored this ‘closedness’ to some extent. As a theatre student and someone following a large number of ‘activists’ and ‘uncut groups’ on twitter, I still only became involved by accident. A conversation on twitter revealed that I was not alone in this.

This was not a flaw of the event itself (the organisers had no budget, in which context the breadth of the publicity is a tribute to the dedication of all involved), but rather to the limited audience that ‘mainstream’ theatre has in the UK.

My own sense of this limited audience was not so much through the late time at which I got involved, which could have been due to my own lack of observational skills. It was rather through one particular play, which has become, in my mind, symbolic of the kind of theatre which is not worth salvaging. Mark Ravenhill, in his Guardian column, has spoken repeatedly about the planned cuts to the arts budget, arguing in 2009 that, as in the early 1990s, a recession could trigger an artistic renaissance, and in July last year, proposing a ‘Thatcherite solution to a Thatcherite problem’ by cutting administration but ‘leaving the artists untouched’. So far, so much like all politicians, Labour or Conservative: We need cuts, the arts shouldn’t be immune, we can do it without harming frontline services.

His most recent column, on Theatre Uncut itself, seems to move away from that conception, speaking of ‘fighting’ instead, and how pleased he is to have ‘worked for free’ without being part of the ‘Big Society’. However, he has also been able to publicise himself in his column, and his column, like the play he wrote  for the event, is marred by a tendency to stereotype: “There’s nearly always an elderly lady of (I assume) the Daily Mail-reading persuasion working the tills alongside a black-clad, nose-pierced young man who is (I assume) an anarchist”.

The point is that, the most visible cheerleader of Theatre Uncut (I’m happy to be corrected if other artists have written about it) has, in his own words, ‘made it into the tiny group of people who make their living from the stage’, and also lost what made his writing exciting, reducing the nuanced social commentaries of Shopping and Fucking or Some Explicit Polaroids to the simplistic writing and safe, patronising, middle-class friendly view of student activists found in A Bigger Banner.

This is not to say that all writers working for subsidised theatres fit into this paradigm, or that Ravenhill is an awful person who can no longer produce good work – I will look forward to his next full-length play with as much anticipation as I did his offering for this event. However, we should not forget that subsidized theatre is not about creating a middle-class enclave, or respecting writers with no regard for the quality of their work.

If we are to fight for a ‘Theatre Uncut’, we should be fighting for an open theatre, one which encourages innovation, not a concern for the bottom line, one which brings people in, one which challenges theatre as an institution, which brings theatre to where audiences are, and says to those audiences ‘you do better, you write a better play’. I believe that this is both a possible and a necessary next step for theatre in protest, and I hope that this event will have inspired people who ‘missed the boat’ this time to put on their own event, write their own plays from where they are. Theatre is a communal medium, and so, to be successful, it should encourage communities to come together, rather than dividing them along lines of class and aesthetic/institutional orthodoxy.


Having shown this piece to the Theatre Uncut team, I feel that it is fair to acknowledge what I did not know when this piece was first written, that Mark Ravenhill was involved in the project to a far greater extent than merely writing the piece, and his influence was important in helping to publicise the event.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 8:11 pm

    I don’t disagree with your criticism of mainstream theatre, subsidized or commercial, as having a tendency to create an enclave of those who already like theatre. I can’t resist adding that I think much experimental theatre (innovation) does so even more; addressing itself either to a highly sophisticated theatre audience a substantial proportion of which works in, studies or teaches theatre or to a self-consciously bohemian arts audience who would never attend a mere play.Your call for an open theatre I also agree with, almost entirely, though I suggest that challenging the nature of the medium (theatre as an institution) is a notion very dear to academia but of little interest to audiences, let alone potential audiences.

    I think you get it exactly right when you talk about bringing theatre to where audiences are, and also the need to find new ways for theatre to protest-heck ,new ways for protests to be theatrical. I also agree about the communal nature of the medium. Something like that started to happen with the Lancaster productions of the Theatre Uncut plays, maybe because unlike a lot of the other places taking part we didn’t have a particular theatre or educational institution backing the project, but drew on the skills of people from all over the city.

    I think that Theatre Uncut was a necessary first step, but nowhere near a final or complete solution to the question. My own preoccupations being what they are, I’d like to see someone try some seriously (comically) political panto, the only genuinely popular theatrical form still thriving. I’m sure others have other ideas, some no doubt better. I’d really like to have a space to discuss these, try them out and, most importantly, take them outside the metaphorical theatreland most of my friends inhabit-bring them to people who’d never step inside a theatre willingly and see what they think.

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