Monday, 7 March 2011

Theatre as Protest

I don’t know how much you might know about Belt Up. I guess at least enough to have lead you here. This is long, but please hear me out.

If you know us, have seen our shows or just know us socially; if you like our work or hate our work; if you have just heard some things about us for better or for worse – for whatever reason you might be reading this – I would ask you to read on. And once you have read on I would ask you to get a friend to read this, or a colleague, and another and another, and get them to get someone else to read it. Whether you agree or disagree, I think this is important and I hope you do too.

Belt Up Theatre is a young company. We set up whilst still at University of York, where we all met. We all studied English. We all grew up at the Uni’s Drama Society. We went to NSDF and had a blast. We were went up to Edinburgh Festival and made a hell of a lot of shows. We were a part of TakeOver at York Theatre Royal. We were given a residency at York Theatre Royal. We have, time after time, thrived on the generosity and community spirit that exists within the arts. We have met wonderful and inspirational people.

We are in our early twenties and running a theatre company. We were featured in The Observer. We are contacted by people at schools, in sixth forms, at drama schools, at Unis, studying for MAs and PhDs who want to ask us about what we do and how we do it because they find it interesting or exciting. We provide workshops in schools too and offer any advice we can to anyone who wants it or needs it.

We are in our early twenties but are starting to make some headway in to the world of Modern British Theatre. We aren’t trained, we have had no one looking after us, we have learnt from our mistakes. The other people in our company are our age too, our peers who want to act and perform and create, we are able to offer them that opportunity. Sure, we don’t pay well, but we get by.

We aren’t exceptional. There are lots of companies doing the same thing. Companies like Little Bulb, Rash Dash and Catapulting Cacoon. Other people our age who have just thought ‘Fuck it, we’re going to make our way in the arts.’ I take my hat off to you. It’s the most bloody fun in the world, but it’s hard and is soon to get a lot harder.

I am concerned: Are we the last of a dying breed?

Everything I listed above, every reason why Belt Up is able to exist, is soon to disappear. Why? Because of this Government. Because this Government is, step by step, royally fucking the arts.

Perhaps a lot of this comes down to University Fees. We met at University; NSDF is populated by University Students; Audiences for companies like us, Rash Dash etc are made up of students; TakeOver focuses on the under 25’s, of which many are students. If no one can afford to go to University then all this student network breaks down.

More than that, people won’t be able to afford Artsdegrees because a job in the Arts is never going to pay off the debt they will be left with. So the infrastructure and management of the Arts is going to disappear and become corporate. Theatres aren’t going to be able to afford to create and offer such generous opportunities as York Theatre Royal has to us, or Slung Low have to Rash Dash. It is going to become harder and harder to carve a path in the Arts. It’s appalling. The whole structure and generosity of the Arts is going to crumble, not because the people will change, but because the necessary infrastructure will no longer be possible.

And the audiences. A Night Less Ordinary has gone, ticket prices will go up, the demographic will narrow and people like us who live of the minimum possible will no longer be able to access theatre. Companies like Belt Up will be forced to up our ticket prices, which means we lose our core audience, which means our theatre means less and has less impact. It means that people won’t get in touch from schools, Universities and Drama Schools. Why? Because no one will be able to afford to see our work, because no one will be coming in to the arts wanting to know what we might have found out, and because no one will be studying Theatre or English because they will no longer be viable options.

It’s sad. Very, very sad.

We are currently in rehearsal for The Beggar’s Opera for TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal. Take a look at that sentence and see what’s at stake.

Our Beggar’s Opera is fun, irreverent but important. It’s a big ‘Fuck You’ to the ConDems.

It sounds obvious, but I feel quite strongly about this:

The very act of people like us putting on a show like The Beggar’s Opera for people like TakeOver at somewhere like York Theatre is, for me, an act of protest. All the components of this production – the people involved, those who have programmed it and supported, the venue, the crew – everything about it is at risk. To make a show that stands up and says ‘Look at what we are doing. We are young and able to do this because all the people around us have made it possible. And you, Mr Cameron, and you, Mr Clegg, are going to slowly burn us to the ground. Well, if you do, we’re are going to go down kicking and screaming and making a bloody big fuss.’ I think this, regardless of whether the show is any good, is an important thing to do. For me this is a gesture of protest. We are displaying a whole stratum of society that is going to disappear. I don’t want that stratum to disappear because it is a fucking good stratum.

I’m not suggesting that Belt Up can change the world. But we are making work by twenty-somethings and, as above, we are making it for so many reasons, ones that we care about. And I don’t think it’s just us. Belt Up, Rash Dash, Little Bulb, Catapulting Cacoon, TakeOver. These are all exciting and important and generous people who all flourish in a strong and thriving network of artists. We need people like York Theatre Royal, NSDF, Slung Low; we need the people who are able to be generous. By doing so it means that we can be generous too. It’s a cycle and a damn important one.

The Beggar’s Opera, for me, stands up to Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg and says ‘Look! Look what this network can do, look what this network can create and support.’ I am more than willing to use this network of wonderful people to tell the ConDems that we are pissed of, and they are risking a lot.

Like I say, even if you know nothing about us, you must know someone in the arts, or at University, or who goes to the theatre, or makes work, or who goes to a youth theatre; the list is endless.

Let’s keep it endless.

Alexander Wright

Co-Artistic Director & Director for The Beggar's Opera

TakeOver Festival runs at York Theatre Royal from 14th - 26th March

The Beggar's Opera runs as part of TakeOver from 24th - 26th March


  1. I feel your pain, and I agree with everything you say.

    However, there is something else that the politicians and the funding bodies fail to take into account. Theatre makers, and performers will continue to make theatre and otherwise live performance, whether they are funded or not. It won't be the same, indeed it will be even more virulent, rough and painfully honest than before. It will attract audiences of people who realise - slowly at first, so we must be patient - that theatre, unlike politicians and newspapers, speaks truth in ways that cannot be controlled. It will not provide its practitioners with a living, but it WILL NOT DIE. And as long as it lives, it will expose hypocrisy and dishonesty in public and private life.

    I'm not advocating less funding for the arts, or for arts training. Any society that fails to foster and promote its cultural life in all its complexity, that denies access to education and training (not the same things!) is a society falling into decadence and morass.

    I am not young, yet I experience exactly the same frustrations and passions as yourselves - and have done many, many times over. But - in the words of the song - I'm still here.

    The message to the pollies is this: Do your damnedest, we ain't going away. And the hungrier we get, the more inventive we become, and the more you are going to have something to fear.

  2. Flloyd,

    Thanks for such a supportive response. I agree and echo your sentiments. I only home that when I'm not young I am still working in the arts and that the arts, as you say, are thriving, come what may.

    Yes, the Pollies can bring it on and, yes, the arts will survive.


  3. The thing about us is that were resilient.

    You don't need to find creativity - as you said, you had no training but you found a way.

    It will be hard but that's the fun.Let's belt up, work together support each and future generations can find their opportunities through us if the gov won't help.

    Great post.


  4. You're making some good points about the threats to arts grads and events like NSDF. But probably the most important part of what you're saying is that "we're not going down without a fight!" attitude. That's probably more important to British art now than it has been for a very long time.

    The work of Belt Up and the companies you mention has been impressive, but (as you've hinted at) the real hard work is up ahead as the carpet is pulled from under your (our) feet.

    I think the problem (it's a niggle, rather than a problem, really) I have with this post comes up with things like 'It's sad. Very, very sad'. Yeah, alright, it'd be a terrible shame if spending cuts did cripple the arts scene - but that's more likely to happen if we allow the attitude of 'it's very sad' to take hold. Instead, let's have more of the rhetoric you're hitting by the end of this post: 'Look, look at what this network can do'.

    Over the last few years the arts have enjoyed a certain amount of public subsidy, and young companies (not just in theatre) are possibly the best-placed to adapt to the loss of that subsidy as they haven't had chance to get used to it.
    I want to see young theatre companies, young dance companies, young artists doing more than bemoaning their under-subsidised fate. Let's not see the whole 'ConDem' thing as a problem, but as an opportunity. Now is the time for young companies to show off their great strengths: imagination, adaptability, resilience, flexibility, vigour. Reduced funding should make us try harder for other types of funding, and should force us to use our imaginations for that as well as in our art. Keep costs down (easier for us than for bigger, older organisations) and stay nimble financially.
    We have something to make us angry (instead of sad, please), something to respond to, something to fire us up - and we've got the imaginative and artistic firepower to say something about it.

    This is our time to get on with it, get out there and really show what we can do. This (cliché alert) is our time, and our moment; let's stop thinking 'problem' and start thinking 'opportunity'.

    Richard T. Watson

  5. As a first year drama student, I have to say the situation worries me. I look at Belt Up and what you guys have achieved with intense admiration, but also worry that in a few years time when I'm spat out into the real world, there won't be any of these opportunities around. Naturally my generation will fight for every inch, but will it be enough?

  6. When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied ‘then what are we fighting for?’

    If only our modern politicians had this attitude, but Clegg and Cameron don't seem to see the intrinsic value of the Arts in the UK, we can write them off as philistines but they clearly don't they recognise the economic potential of the Arts scene either and it is as you say very sad.
    I'm glad to hear a rebelious voice with all the doom and gloom and to know that others such as Theatre Uncut will continue to challenge these crippling and shortsighted cuts. Keep loving, keep fighting!

  7. I think Richard is right.

    Yes, these are difficult times and, Katie, we are going to have to fight harder to create and sustain our own opportunities.

    I agree that the Arts have enjoyed a boom over the last decade or so and I do think it is sad that we are going to have to fight harder, to fight to prove ourselves in the eyes of people like Cameron & Clegg. Sophfull is correct, they don't seem to appreciate the intrinsic value within the Arts and I do think it is a shame that we are going to have to spend so much more time proving ourselves, I don't think we should have to prove ourselves on that basic level.

    But I am damn sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that we will prove ourselves. I am damn sure that the Arts will not disappear, but rather we will have to reinvent ourselves and find new ways to be sustainable. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the ConDems decide to piss on the arts, then we will light new fires elsewhere.

    I look forward to being a part of that.


  8. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks...

    University of York

  9. Take to the streets . . . . that's where the people are. Theatre has turned off more people than turned them on. It's so elitist and the big nationally funded company's will continue to be elitist and irrelevant so make your theatre relevant to ordinary people's lives. You probably won't make a living of course. Most drama schools teach you only how to speak nicely but give you nothing to say worth listening to so screw them and their funding.
    Take to the streets . . . .be innovative and adapt. When in Edinburgh stage your work with the Free Festival.