the challenge of change

27Nov09

The Challenge of Change: How can we create a better future for theatre here in the West Midlands?

I didn’t know what to expect of this two-day ‘Open Space’ gathering (organised by Alison Gagen for Mid-Point and facilitated by Seth Honnor of Theatre Bristol) and wasn’t sure I could spare the time. But re-connecting to the richly diverse theatre landscape of the West Mids I found energising and very stimulating. At The Crescent Theatre yesterday I found myself in the company of about 70/80  theatre-makers, writers, directors all with an investment in the region’s theatre ecology. Open Space conferencing allows the agenda to be set, delivered and evaluated from within. It self-regulates itself in a highly democratic way. Firstly, the 60, hour-long discussion sessions were scheduled in for the 2 days with titles such as “Why aren’t more women writers getting their work staged?”, “Less development, more production?”, “Live Art/Digital Art = Theatre?” and “Do we make a difference?” I could see the cogs whirring in James’s head across the room, wondering how he might intervene in his characteristically left-field way. Eventually he stepped forward and wrote down his discussion header … “Does anybody want to go to a party?”

My early experiences of the West Mids Theatre Forum (a long-time predessessor of Mid-Point) were of a very earnest, funding-obsessed gathering. James and I, as newcomers onto the local theatre scene, felt like fishes out of water. We didn’t seem to have anything in common with the largely issue-driven companies like Big Brum, Belgrade TIE (RIP) and Collar & TIE who were struggling to maintain their funding at the time. We were driven by an artistic agenda and had no money whatsoever … and consequently nothing to lose.

The ‘Party’ question may not be so flippant as it seems. It reminds us that without enjoying what we do, without the passion or the inspiration of each other, there is a dry and dull landscape. One that is unlikely to inspire audiences to show up.

I convened a very healthily attended and lively session called “The future of theatre involves taking theatre out of theatre buildings”. I’m not sure we drew up any radical plans or ideas, but we acknowledged the rich heritage of non-theatre-space work which has been made (and which is possible to make) in Birmingham and how our learned and shared knowledge/experience should be fed back into building-based practice. We finished with a call for a ‘National Theatre of The WestMids’, along the lines of the peripatetic National Theatres of Scotland or Wales. It may not make the cut for today’s Action/Planning list but it was worth shouting out.

My final session of the day – a burning question, was whether Birmingham/the West Mids should have its own equivalent of Theatre Bristol, which is seen as a very successful model for advocacy. Because of it’s geographic diversity and also the diversity of interests I don’t think the Bristol model could work here, but it has opened up the discussion and who knows, maybe a new kind of model will naturally emerge. The significance of Manchester’s ‘scene’ was also cited, with the International Theatre Festival its pinnacle. If ArtFest is as good as it gets in Birmingham then we are truly doomed, though; whilst it heavily promotes participation and access, there is a desperate dearth of quality. The City may have chosen to focus its ‘Festival” interests elsewhere – the International Dance Festival, perhaps? In terms of new independent theatre though, does Fierce hold the key…?

Sadly, I’m not able to join today’s sessions at The Crescent but I’m looking forward to seeing the write-ups and Action Plans posted on the website. I’m also looking forward to being invited to a party!

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3 Responses to “the challenge of change”

  1. 1 James

    Party 11th December, 19.30
    @ A E Harris Corner Northwood St & James Street B3 1SZ
    Cheap Bar, music, host your own Christmas Party in a corner.

    Nice people only thank you.
    (could also double as Graeme’s Birthday bash).

    PS Your analysis is correct Graeme, there is method in the madness.

  2. 2 Seth

    Hi Graeme, it was great to meet you last week.

    I just wanted to say that Theatre Bristol is part of a bigger project across the SW within which there are about 8 different organisations approaching the development of the theatre industry in ways that reflect the specific needs of the locality they are based in. The thing that binds them all is a desire and remit to make Theatre better for artists and audiences. I agree that cloning TB could be disastrous – but maybe learning from the structure within which it grew could really help meet some of the challenges that came up last week. And maybe, as you say, help something new, and relevant, emerge for WM. I guess I’m curious as to what you see the “Theater Bristol model” as?

    I should get back to getting all the notes up online so everyone can read them… sorry…


  1. 1 The Pledges « Stan’s Cafe Theatre Company

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