The In Battalions report, published by Tamasha co-Artistic Director and playwright Fin Kennedy and researcher Helen Campbell Pickford in 2013, received widespread coverage and formed a significant part of the recent debate about arts funding cuts, in particular around theatres’ capacity to take risks on developing new plays and playwrights in an age of austerity. Below is a transcript of Fin Kennedy’s Westminster Media Forum speech on how we assess the cost versus the value of the arts, in order for the sector to better make its case to politicians and the public.
“I’ve been asked to speak today because last year I wrote a report entitled In Battalions, about the effect of cuts to the Arts Council on the British theatre industry’s capacity to develop new plays. The results made for grim reading. The report is available online so I won’t repeat its findings here. Instead I would like to address a philosophical point which I feel often gets overlooked in this debate, and that is about the difference between the cost of the arts to the public purse and the value the arts generate for public life.
There is a prevailing ideology you come across when this debate comes up. Phillip Pullman calls it ‘free market fundamentalism’. I prefer the softer term ‘market value’, because it is not a wholly illogical or unreasonable position. But it essentially states that if any play cannot attract enough paying theatregoers to cover its costs then it should be allowed to go to the wall. Let the market decide.
I’m in my first year of a new job – as Co-Artistic Director of a small-scale touring theatre company, Tamasha – and I’d like to offer a few reflections on this.
Small scale theatre tends to confound the market value principle, and here’s why.
A 90 minute new play with 3-5 actors will always play in what we call a studio or black box theatre – small auditoria of around 150 seats. So far, so cheap you might think.
But if you’re going to do things properly – which is what being a professional artist is all about – then costs begin long before show opens. Commissioning a playwright and developing the script is the first step – and can often take place years ahead of first night.
Once the show is cast there are the actors and other professionals such as the director, designer, company manager and stage manager. Then there are material costs, back office costs, producing costs, admin support, publicity – and if the show is required to tour, travel, accommodation and per diems.
All this means that even a modest four-hander play, with three weeks’ rehearsal, a three week run in London and four weeks’ touring can easily cost upwards of £100,000. Given what one can charge for shows of this scale – and even if the show does roaring business (a big if) it will make back on box office perhaps half what it cost – at best.
Small scale theatre is essentially economically unviable. It cannot exist without some kind of subsidy.
But the question we should be asking of such shows is not ‘Did it make money?’ but ‘Did it create value?’ – a far more amorphous concept, and one at which our sector is notoriously bad at successfully making its case.
I’d like to demonstrate the difference between cost and value with a brief example from my own company’s recent output.
My Name is… is a three-hander verbatim play written by my colleague Sudha Bhuchar. The play has just closed in London and Glasgow, where it received a clutch of rave reviews and in Scotland standing ovations. The play tells the real-life story of Molly Campbell, a mixed race Scottish-Pakistani girl who, in 2006, was reported as having been kidnapped by her father and forcibly taken to Pakistan. The truth turned out to be a lot more complicated.
My Name is… tells this family’s story in its own words. It has been a huge success, with audiences in tears, TV and radio interest, and a national tour booked for September and October. Even so, it will not make more money than it cost.
The value in a show like this is manifold. It tells the truth behind a story located along an important cultural fault line which exists in our society. It gives visibility to often-misunderstood or vilified minority groups. It creates understanding in audiences of other cultures with which many share their cities.
Performing in the show has been a stepping stone for all three of its actors, for one it was her professional debut and another has been nominated for an award.
The show was accompanied by workshops in inner city schools, exploring what it means to have a dual heritage in 21st century Britain.
In Scotland, Asian audience members urged me to remount the show for a longer Scottish tour because of the social and cultural community understanding such a show can create.
This makes it sound worthy – it wasn’t. It was funny and warm and heartfelt and human – and desperately sad.
But perhaps most movingly, the real Molly Campbell and her mother came to see it. They loved it. They came back – several times. They brought extended family. After the third time they had seen it, Molly herself said, “It was like going back in time and looking at us all … I got to see my mum and dad falling in love … I was just a little girl who was stuck but not knowing she was stuck and having to choose. I was scared in the beginning that people would blame me for what happened but watching myself being so innocent it’s finally hit me that I don’t have to carry that guilt anymore.”
If there is a price you can put on that, I have no idea what it might be.
My Name is… took five years to create. The project is a quintessential argument for public investment in the arts – ‘market value’ would never have come up with this show. Don’t get me wrong, now that it is a hit, Tamasha are doing everything in our power to exploit its success. It may, one day, break even. But it will never make a profit. Does this mean it is without value?
I’d like to close with a quote from Lorne Campbell, in a recent think piece for the Guardian about whether an obsession with value for money is trumping concerns of artistic quality.
“Perhaps this is the role of the cultural organisation now?” Cambpell writes, “To be the buffer between the market system we operate in and the non-market place that must be created if we are to begin to dream a new more equitable way for us to be as a society?”
So, I would repeat again: the question we should be asking of our publicly-supported theatre is not – or not only – ‘How much did it cost?’ but ‘How much value did it generate?’ for British society.