The day I sit down to write this piece, Trump has just fired Comey and been accused of sharing classified information with the Russian Ambassador. The Guardian homepage currently covers deaths from pollution in cities, a cholera outbreak in Yemen and whether North Korea could trigger a nuclear war. It’s easy to think that the world is going to hell. Global political events, climate change, the refugee crisis… the list goes on, and can feel overwhelming. For those of us who work in the arts, it can be hard to remember why we do what we do in the face of a barrage of terrible news. Perhaps we should all quit and do something more useful with our time and energy?
David Jubb, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre, says: “If we’re just keeping people entertained, a bit like the musicians on the Titanic as the ship goes down, avoiding thinking about the impending sinking, then that’s not good.” However, he continues, that much of what we call theatre is so much more than this. Amber Massie-Blomfield, Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre, agrees: “There is the question about whether artistic practice can open up ideas in current political concerns in a different kind of way, and prompt a broader community to think about them.”
There is an argument to be made that we shouldn’t focus on theatre when so much in our world needs action. Jubb, however, disagrees: “If you’re looking at solving some of the massive global challenges we face, then using creativity is probably our greatest hope. Going from a global political level down to the level of a local theatre, we actually have a huge role to play, I think, in terms of inspiring people to be creative.”
Massie-Blomfield raises theatre’s ability to provoke and inspire, too: “There’s always a conversation in the programme [at CPT] around the live issues in the world today – so sometimes there’ll be very quick responsive stuff like a weekend of work about the implications of Brexit, or Calm Down, Dear, our festival of feminist work. There’s always this interesting interaction between what we’re programming and what artists are talking about, because sometimes it feels like we are provoking a conversation.”
Jubb continues this theme: “Artists have always had a role in asking questions for us to answer, so any theatre that is engaging with artists who are great at asking questions is going to be important. If you think that the world going to hell in a handcart, then perhaps there’s no more important time for artists to respond.”
Many companies and artists are using theatre to respond to world events and provoke debate, from outright activism to tackling extremism to climate change to presenting the experiences of women in prison.
There are clear examples of theatre that is actively changing lives, including companies such as Good Chance, working with refugees in Calais and elsewhere, and Belarus Free Theatre, raising awareness of the last dictatorship in Europe. Good Chance has been called “a beacon of cheer and solace… in the midst of chaos and desperation, Good Chance helps keep the human spirit alive” (Sarah Sands in the Evening Standard), and Cate Blanchett says “We should never underestimate the importance of hope and compassion. Theatre and art can be a way to foster hope and connect with our common humanity”.
Jubb argues that there are subtler examples, too, including BAC. “The role of theatre is to inspire people to take greater risks, that’s what we try to do, and our role is to help people to shape their future. That means their own future and it means the future of their communities, so actually I hope we are, and theatre is, a catalyst for change.”
Theatre can also be a catalyst for empathy and understanding, believes Massie-Blomfield. “It’s so important that we learn how to tell stories,” she says. “That’s how we frame our view of the world, and learn how to communicate with one another."
She continues: “Digital technology is changing the way we communicate so profoundly, and I think that theatre can be a counterpoint to digital technology. Actually, I think if you look at things like the US election, how much that dialogue was shaped online, and possibly with Brexit as well, so much was able to happen because people were interacting and hiding behind their screens.”
“I think the way we interact is going to continue to be changed at an alarming rate and it’s going to change our world in a really profound way. It’s easy to underestimate how big the role of theatre could be as a counterpoint to that. Having a place to meet in person and look someone in the eye will become massively important. It will feel increasingly urgent to meet in those kind of spaces. It may not always be formulated as theatre, but live meeting spaces where people get together and tell stories and talk about their life experiences and engage with their differences will be profoundly important.”
For Jubb, there is also something about what kinds of theatre we are making, and making accessible. “If our individual theatres are contributing to the current inequalities and re-asserting the dominant orthodoxy, reasserting the power at the centre, then that is something we need to look at. I take big inspiration in terms of culture where I think there’s a real passionate interest in looking at the periphery, which is about understanding that artistic practice at the edges of communities is where some of the most interesting innovation and ideas and change are happening.”
The final thing to remember is that, however bleak things look, the world is, in many ways, getting better on a global level: extreme poverty is in steep decline, global life expectancy is up, infant mortality rates are down. Jubb ends on a positive note: “Possibly the world is going to hell on some geopolitical levels, but actually when you walk into a local theatre, or you walk into an arts organisation or a community that is developing and shaping its own ideas, I don’t agree with your provocation.”
“I think there is an incredible amount of positive change – I see a creative revolution happening. People are, on a local level, changing things, changing lives. I totally agree that there’s a lot that is enormously challenging, with the rise of right-wing populism, all kinds of geopolitical upheaval, global climate change, but actually there is also an incredible amount that is very positive.”