Lolita Chakrabarti loves theatre. She has been working in it for a quarter of a century. She loves theatre but she hates the business of it.
Now, 25 years later, having worked in the industry for all that time, I also loathe the theatre—the entitlement and exclusivity of it. The extortionate ticket prices that deny access to people like my teenage self. I used to see shows at Birmingham Rep for £1. (Hurray for the Travelex season at the National Theatre.) I hate the plays that masquerade as revelations and the actors that take themselves too seriously. I hate the irrelevant plays that are given startling reviews—"Definitive," "The best show I have ever seen," "Unparalleled." The hyperbole of the theatre makes me want to hide in shame. I hate the impenetrability of it and the pressure of feeling ignorant if you don't agree with those that "know." I cringe at the politically correct speeches from certain quarters about "diversity and inclusion," made to attract funding but based on half-truths where no real action lies.
Theatre has a rarefied reputation I think. It's not accessible like film, which is affordable, has a huge range of choice and is full of diverse voices telling diverse stories. Most people can name their favourite film star immediately but they could not name the great theatre actors of today as they could in Ira Aldridge's time. Theatre tries to be for everyone but in reality, it's not. We are in a Catch-22 situation—the people who can afford the theatre tend to be older and middle class with disposable incomes. In order to finance more productions and attract more money, plays are chosen to secure the attendance of that audience. Therefore, most theatre in Britain, including the work of international playwrights, is normally presented through a middle-class lens.
Her criticisms of what theatre has become is a call for theatre artists much in the same way that Mike Daisey's How Theater Failed America was. In the 21st Century, and specifically in 2017, the propensity for major institutional theaters to go corporate after decades of having to justify their economic existence for the pittance of government funding is now standard practice. When mostly white, middle aged people with money consume what you put out there, it is easier to throw up your hands, listen to the Monied Class and give in to what seems the inevitable slide into Bottom Line Mentality. I'd go further to say that her specific points are relevant to most (if not all) of what I'll call The Liberal Institutions.
Museums, most of what we associate with the Arts, and public radio all seem to be suffering the same conclusions: diversity and affordability doesn't pay the bills. See if by switching targets, her critical analysis rings true:
"Museums try to be for everyone but in reality, they're not. We are in a Catch-22 situation—the people who can afford the museum tend to be older and middle class with disposable incomes..."
"In order to finance more shows and reporting and attract more money, broadcast magazines and podcasts are chosen to secure the attendance of that audience. Therefore, most public radio, including the work of international journalists, is normally presented through a middle-class lens."
Yup. Sounds about right.
Older, middle class white people have the money and there are more of them who find value in these institutions. It makes perfect business sense to court their dollars. The difficulty lies in the fact that these institutions are not regular businesses. They purport to serve the greater good and their missions talk the all inclusive angle—unlike traditional businesses, these are businesses with an altruistic and egalitarian purpose. So what happens when the need for dough conflicts with the purpose of the organization?
- The day-to-day discussions of the organization become consistently about metrics (money, ratings, number of participants, charts that measure demographics and income levels). Once a place where the messy talk of creativity and risk-taking was championed, the workplace becomes a place for measuring concrete success with concrete, mathematical tools. The pressure from all sides to create these metrics to justify content becomes standard.
- As their voices are increasingly ignored, the true believers begin to leave for either more idealistic pursuits or higher paying gigs. A person joins an organization like a theater, museum or public radio station because of the inspiration derived from the mission. When the mission becomes the money, the organization slowly becomes like every other corporation and those with the deepest connection to the thrill of serving more idealistic goals split to find the source of the original inspiration or, having conceded to simply making money, go find places that offer them more of it for the same work.
- The output of the organization becomes increasingly mediocre as the pool of dissent and discussion thins. The sameness of everything put out starts to look exactly like the people the organization cares most about: the people with the money. This is exacerbated by the fact that those who stay within the organization are either too new to care or too afraid of losing their job to speak up.
- The institution becomes a revolving door of talented people looking to get some experience in the field with hopes of moving on to other institutions that seem to fit the idealistic purpose but are likely just doing the same thing. PR is like Facebook for corporations—all the pretty pictures of babies, puppies and food without the messiness of actual life.
- Eventually, other, smaller enterprises take up the mantle of the mission and the organization becomes a part of the fabric that we all accept but, ultimately, ignore while the constituency of middle class white people argue about their buy-in to a sell out institution.
If the organization has strong roots, this effect of homogenized money laundering can be reversed but not without sweat and sacrifice. Not without a few willing to take a stand and demand risk (not the safe bet sort of risks with bumper gutters to ensure a strike but authentic, balls out risk that challenges both the institution and its patrons) and accountability to the many without the expendable income to attend the museum galas or the star-studded fundraisers. The larger the organization, the more difficult it is to reverse this degradation of values but it is possible, I believe, with some sweat and some luck.
Too Big To Fail has its consequences.