Theatre buildings are beguiling aren't they? It's hard to resist the notion that they really do soak up the essence of past performances into their very walls. There's a thrill in taking your seat, an expectation wrought by place. The orchestra tuning, the lights dimming are all part of it but not the whole. Theatres have power because, for the price of a ticket, you are allowed to enter that space. The show may be good or it may not but at least part of the thrill is being on the inside.
And that's the thing isn't it? We're always a little excited by permissive space. Who doesn't enjoy getting to stand behind the shop counter for a change. Isn't it fun to step inside the doorway marked “No unauthorised personnel”. We've been demarcating and assigning space for millennia. Who's to say that that isn't exactly what Stonehenge was meant to do. “You few, you can be here beside the bluestones but you lot – you have to stay beyond the sarsens!”.
You lot, yea, you lot. You, who'd have the mick taken out of you if your mates saw you near a theatre, you who can't afford the ticket price, yea, you there with behaviour problems, who're on medication or who live outside of town. You lot stay beyond the sarsens! Because wherever there are walls there is, by necessity, an inside and an outside and there are always more people on the outside. And here's the rub, these days they're often not even bothering to look in.
So the problem has become two-pronged. It's not just about inclusion, which in many ways is the easier problem to solve. It's also about audience development, re-engaging those who have even fallen out of love with that feeling of being on the inside; those who are no longer impressed by performance soaked walls. Some of the least successful theatres have lost the knack of making their audience feel special, as if being on the inside was a prize. They transact a deal, at a clinical box office, and that's the end of that. You pay, you see, you go. Chances are you never come back.
We have some great examples though, right here in Exeter, where theatres have succeeded in making entry into their permissive space attractive again. Entry through a groovy basement bar, like at the Bike Shed Theatre and into a David Lockwood's broader vision of performance development that is striving towards national recognition. Or at Cygnet Theatre, where their very longevity is testament to their huge band of supporting volunteers, who see themselves as part of a network that is nurturing quality repertory training. And more recently, what joy to see the huge returning audiences to the Northcott Theatre to see quality performance in their Christmas themed collaboration with the amazing Creative Cow. Those audiences proved that they are ready to be invited back into that space but they want more than that, they want to be invited into an ongoing story.
I believe that is why Interwoven's Squilometre concept works on both levels. Working without a ticket price and out-of-doors are incredibly important and deliberate inclusion decisions. There is something so connected and completely joyful about actually being there on the streets. A totally unbarred experience for both performers and audience.
But we are landscape-connected too. Because we understand that audience development depends upon making a successful invitation to share a specific place. In that sense, we do have a theatre, it's just that it encompasses one square kilometre of land. The space we invite our audience into already includes their streets, their shops, their homes, their schools. Instead of inviting them into a walled-in permissive space, we've expanded it to include where they already are!
And we understand that our on-going commitment to them is more important than any walls ever could be.
If you'd like to read more about how performance without walls, ticket price or arts funding can not only be possible but may actually essential to the survival of our art then please read on ....
Guidance for Associate Artists
As I sat down to write some guidance for artists, to explain something of the concepts that underpin the Squilometres venture, I realised it all came down to a statement of intent. Squilometres is intended to potentiate social change. Not to dictate the nature of that change but to animate a community to a state whereby positive change can happen.
And it felt good to get that out because then the guidance became clear. I even have a text, my “bible” if you like. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift - How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (2012 Canongate) has profoundly influenced the development of the Squilometre concept.
So there we have it, Squilometres has a statement of intent - and at this point “I” becomes “we”, because I cannot do it alone. We aspire to potentiate social transformation. And we want to do this by developing relationships of all kinds. Particularly with artists, both individuals and small companies. So, it is time to be explicit in our intent and to provide some guidelines for current and prospective associate artists. The best way to do that is to return to our original Four Cornerstones of Community Commissioned Performance, and to explain them in Lewis’ terms:-
1) Be Authentic - know your art and bow into service to it
Your creativity is a gift. It’s important to know it, acknowledge it, clear the decks to “identify with the spirit of the gift, not with its particular embodiments …” (Hyde, 2012: 151). And your Gift may not have a name. In our society creativity is sidelined, compartmentalised and commodified. It took me three years to discover that my creative label is Animateur - “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind”. I couldn’t find the label because there are no jobs but the fact is, it is what I am. It is my Gift and having discovered it, I feel the real work can begin.
So take time to know your true nature as an artist
and when you join us, bring your authentic, creative self.
2 ) Be Mindful of the Earth - enhance, not deplete, the world around you
Hyde refers to the artist as an “enthusiast”. When one is a creative “enthusiast” in your relationship with the real, physical and spiritual world it is an act of reconnection, or, as Hyde calls it, reunion. “When the poet is in the gifted state, the world seems generous ….”, so, with Squilometres, when we celebrate places, in reunion, we’re offered a wonderful opportunity to be mindfully creative.
Instead of stage lighting, watch the skies and seasons to see what effects they offer; instead of constructed props, consider the trees, fallen leaves, forage the hedgerows. The very places that we celebrate are the canvas, the set and the subject. The people who dwell there are our community. We encourage artists to create beautiful, unique things from what the earth provides. There is a profound link between the arts and environment. Artists have the gift and privilege to reconnect the broken.
“Natural objects - living things in particular - are like a language we only faintly remember. It is as if creation had been dismembered sometime in the past and all things are limbs we have lost that will make us whole if only we can recall them.” (Hyde, 2012:177).
As a Squilometre artist, be ready to be an agent of reunion.
3) Gift It - Find a beautiful use for money
Being paid for your art is both a political and spiritual act. It’s important.
We are not advocates of artists working for free
However, we do believe that there is a better use for money than commercial transaction. Hyde explains that when a gift is freely given, the increase in its worth stays with the ‘object’ and increases as it is passed along. Gift bestowal can create an “empty space into which new energy may flow” (Hyde 2012:148). As it works its way around a community, it grows and grows, building relationships and enabling change. In contrast when a service is exchanged for an agreed price, the transaction nullifies the relationship and any further emotional connection. We believe that is harsh, jarring world in which to create art.
So we will not charge our audience a fixed price up front but will ask them to pay-it-forward for the next show, after they’ve seen the performance. And it will be some while before we can guarantee a fixed rate for artists. So, in the meantime, we’ll keep our productions and our casts small, minimising the individual commitment. And,
we will welcome you into a community in which gift flows
There will be remuneration in cash. There will also be unlooked for returns, taking many forms. If you’ll dwell for a while within our community, rather than closing the transaction down after the performance, then we believe you will be amazed at what an increase in worth means.
4) Connect - love and cherish all
This seems like a big ask but, in fact, becomes much simpler when seen in terms of community. Any performance happens at the centre of a community - all of the individuals that have contributed, in any way, to the happening. Whilst, holding the broader aim of loving all in your heart, the people of your community should be the focus of your attention and care. Be particularly grateful for those who arrive with fixed views, ulterior motives or challenged minds. They present the best opportunities for growth and change and “where we stumble, often treasure lies” (Bayo Akomolafe).
It is particularly important to identify your community and by that we mean know them as people, not contact details. Know their views and interests so that you can facilitate the passing on of the gift. For gift to grow in worth and potentiate change it must be passed on and those in receipt of the gift must be in a position to do so. The mechanisms for this need to be clear.
This is why we operate within one square kilometre (Squilometre) of landscape
So that the members of that community can see for themselves the benefits of passing the gift between them.
As an Associate Artist you are invited to join that community too
... of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads
"Authentic marketing". It is a phrase I’ve used before. I’ve used it when I’ve been trying to convey the importance of finding the joy in what you do as performance artists and colouring your communications with rainbows of that joy. I’ve also encouraged artists, when trying to project their work, to dwell for a while on real examples of the things that have worked, because these are the clues that describe your authenticity, who and what you are. Often those clues lie in the unplanned and unexpected successes that every project reveals.
I’ve just experienced one of those – big time! And I’ve got to share …
The Squilometre concept is finding its place now on the park bench of performance arts endeavour. It’s wriggled its bum into a little space between psychogeography and ambulatory performance and found a natural partner in Placed Based Education (who knew!). All of these realisations are indeed joyful. It’s fun to find out where, or indeed if, you fit. But that’s not the particular joy I discovered.
No, I’ve found out that when you define a place, in the way that Squilometres does; that is through land and sky, trees and water … all the things that we commonly own. When you create with those ingredients, then the people who inhabit and share it, they become an integral part of the mix.
So instead of “targeting an audience” you get to meet with them.
Instead of “developing an audience” you share with them and cherish them.
Instead of “putting bums on seats” you get to talk to faces!
And the depth of this glorious revelation really became clear to me when I decided to deliver invitations to the Sweetbrier Lane performance through all of the 879 letter-boxes myself. This was partly because I didn’t like to ask anyone else to do it but mostly it was because I’d made the decision to create the first Squilometre project in my very own neighbourhood. It was so convenient, it made sense. But, yes, it was a little bit scary. These were, are, my neighbours. If they really don’t like what I’m doing, they literally know where I live!
I slowly realised though that I was completely loving it! I was braced, to tell you the truth, for brusque no thanks yous and angry scowls. At first, I skipped quickly down paths, after delivering, to avoid confrontation. But it wasn’t like that at all. Turns out that people in the big, scary, outside world are really nice. Pleasant, friendly, ordinary people who, if caught at their door, politely take an invitation with a smile.
It was more than that though. I was thoroughly enjoying the physicality of it. I was out of doors doing something useful. Normally, for me, useful is defined by a chair and a keyboard. This was different. I could feel the muscles of my legs responding to the journey and the cold of the gathering evening shrinking my ears and nose. As I watched a startling range of greens, purples and every shade of orange in the western sky I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I saw the sun set.
And the scents! Do you remember, when you used to play out, that wet pavement had a smell? I found myself, as I made my deliveries, transported suddenly back, by the sharp and herby scent of a shrub, to endless hours of just being out of doors. Of taking time to gaze at the intricate worlds inside tiny flower heads, to examine exactly how the paving stones fitted together and work out how many stones you could actually fit in that gap at the bottom of the wall. Taken right back to a time in my life when being out of doors was just what you did and you didn’t have to rush on to anything else until your mum called you in for tea.
Glorious, glorious revelation indeed. So, this was marketing was it?! What’s more, I found as the week progressed, it got easier and my legs complained a little less. The ridge of landscape I’d chosen to fashion my first Squilometre performance to was paying me back, actually rewarding me, for taking the time to walk it.
And now, when I stroll down my street, I know a few more faces. Where I used to pass without a smile, I now lift my head and nod. Where I would have smiled, I stop and talk. My Squilometre is rewarding me in all sort of unexpected ways and I can’t imagine anything more wondrously authentic than that.
What a strange thing to say. Of course, it’s the answer. Isn’t it? There simply aren’t enough salaried jobs, are there? So, if we want to make performance art, we have to get funding, whether its lottery/quango funding or trust/charity funding. That’s how it’s done. Alternatively we provide teaching, training, workshops and outreach. We share our skills and sometimes we’ll get funding to do that too. These are the options, right?
No. These things are not enough. There’s a better way.
Perfectly poised ….
As performance artists we are already naturally blessed with the answer. The very expression of our art-form is communion with others. Performance is always a collaboration of many parts, including audience, artists, other professionals, supporters, benefactors and interested parties. Even solo artists cannot create and express their art alone. The act of performance is a blessed conjoined gift and therein lays its ultimate strength. We are in fact perfectly poised to make a real difference to the future of arts funding.
It works like this. Every single performance of every single type happens at the epi-centre of a community, like concentric rings in a pond. The make up of that community may shift and reform but a performance is always at the centre of its ring. Unfortunately, we’ve lost sight of that as a whole and been encouraged, often through the funding application process itself, to compartmentalise our community. We’re asked to address audience development as a separate issue from fundraising; to fully describe projects before we’ve had a chance to liaise properly. Worst of all, we have come to see our relationship with our community as something separate from our Art. It is not and can never be.
This compartmentalising and separation of relationships is what has left many large theatres stranded and struggling. They thought the building itself was their asset, their resource. They were wrong. It was always their community, in the widest sense. Lyn Gardner speaks of this separation between artist and audience 05/02/14, and how, if we address this, we might create an “army of advocates” for our work 07/05/2013.
In this context, it’s an interesting sign of our times, how rarely you see positions for Animateurs in the arts today. In this country we’re more used to seeing the Animateur in the music industry. Music Jobs UK describe them as helping “audiences to appreciate musicians and music in new ways and helps them to enjoy music that they may not be familiar with. They also help the musicians as they develop techniques for reaching out to their communities and encourage as many people as possible to engage with music and music related activities.”
However, in France and Italy in the 1960s and 1970s the role was seen to encompass a broader artistic remit. An Animateur or Animatore was “a practising artist, in any art form, who uses her / his skills, talents and personality to enable others to compose, design, devise, create perform or engage with works of art of any kind” (Smith 1999, 2009) – “animation” was to breath life into a thing and do all that was required to allow it to happen, including marshalling the necessary resources and funds.
To me, this moves us closer to the kind of holistic community development that all performance needs. As a performance artist/organisation you have a community which is your greatest strength and continual communication within it should not be an extra task but should be part of your Art. You need to employ or to think like an Animateur. You need someone who can resist the imperatives to segregate and compartmentalise, someone to love and nuture your whole community, including audience, sponsors, benefactors and interested parties, in all the ways that are needful to create your art.
Still not sure, well then let me prove it to you …
The South West is seething with talent and creativity in this regard …..
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. The inspiration is right here in the South West performance landscape, just look around you.
You can see it in the action at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. The dynamic direction there of David Lockwood and latterly of Fin Irwin has meant that they haven’t relied on the theatre itself to generate income. What they have created is a beautiful community of performance artists, audience and sponsors; a hub of developing practice that supports local, and indeed national, talent. Through their Framework Programme and Residencies they’re continually growing and nurturing their community.
It's right there in the promenade, open-access, landscape-involved work of Burn the Curtain.
You can see it in North Devon too. Multi Story Theatre have taken years of experience of working with young people, into schools but not as an add-on, or an outreach extension – but as an integrated way of creating and developing their performances. And in the inspired work of Viva Voce whose mission is to “create artistic experiences from the words of real people” in excellent verbatim theatre.
And in a myriad of smaller enterprises such as Theatre Rush’s Story Exchange, and indeed Interwoven Production’s own Squilometre community-commissioned performance concept.
I’m not saying that none of these organisations has received traditional arts funding, or that they won’t in the future. I am saying that because of their community integrated approach, they are better positioned than others to survive without it in the future.
And the beauty is, the real gem of glory is, in changing in this way, in wholly embracing and animating your community to fund and shape your art, you’ll be playing an active part in changing the arts landscape forever. So, if you’re hurting from another rejected funding application, finding your talents and enthusiasms blunted by having to provide endless “evidence” of your worth, take heart. The answer is already here. And the more we operate in this way, the less we will need arts funding.
As performance artists, in the sharing, the grace and the communion of your art – we are uniquely and perfectly poised to change the world.
Smith, Mark K. (1999, 2009) ‘Animateurs, animation and fostering learning and change’, the encylopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/mobi/animateurs-animation-learning-and-change]
It’s a driving question and it’s about more than just subsistence because it also tends to be the way we judge the success of our art. One of the first questions you’ll get asked by another artist is “do you do this full-time”? So few of us achieve that heady goal that its very scarcity makes it all the more desirable. But it is a very divisive tendency and one to be avoided. It just generates envy and discord amongst artists, whose natural tendency otherwise would be to collaborate and co-create.
It is also, I’d like to demonstrate, a very old school way of looking at things. The economics of scarcity is well recognised and deeply embedded in our thinking. Apparently, we will all pay more for something that is rare. But economics is not a pre-scriptive tool. Things don’t have to be that way. It is a de-scriptive tool. It simply tells us that most people, in most circumstances, will behave in that way.
So, it is extremely interesting to note that there are many voices now; many artists, environmentalists, theorists, in fact people in all walks of life, who are succeeding in persuading people to behave differently! It is aided by, but not exclusive to, the internet and social media. It is strongly linked to the revulsion that many feel about how we exploit and despoil our planet and comes from the camp of holistic ecology and environmental responsibility.
It has been coined by Charles Eisenstein, as Sacred Economics but in fact many of its characteristics were laid out as a kind of manifesto for artists as early as 1979 by Lewis Hyde (The Gift).
Hyde argues strongly that to exchange or barter something for a fixed price is to “kill” the cultural, artistic and spiritual value of the “thing”. It is cancelled out, removed from universe, from the common good. Whereas, when something is given freely, each transaction will increase its worth, value and benefit. And it will continue to increase as long as the gift keeps moving. Both Eisenstein and Hyde therefore argue strongly in favour of Gift – giving your services away.
But how can this work?!! How does this make the artist’s subsistence any more tenable? Now, I’m aware that, being a recent convert to these ideas I’m behaving like an AA “two-stepper”. I’m all excited about the revelation and now want to go and tell others all about it, before I’ve done the hard work and all the steps in between. I haven’t proved it can work yet. But I’m also aware that many people are making it work and I’m conscious of wanting to emulate some of the openness and vulnerability of Amanda Palmer, one of the most successful proponents of this approach.
Amanda, a musician, is famous for having cut out the middle man and for her profound and direct connection with her audience through social media and crowd-finding. That is, if she has one, her business model. She just asks her fans for their help.
So, I’m sharing my thought process with you, just like Amanda does. I want to keep the conversation open as I continue to research, explore, discuss and trial how this might be.
Here are some of the things that I think are important to developing a Gift approach and a Sacred Economy, particularly in theatre and the performing arts:-
1) I think it is ‘sacred’ and important to give your work away but to ask people, in an easy, fun way to return the gift if they can/want to. This means extending your performance into Q & A or some other activity that includes the audience. It means not sending them away at the end of the show but, rather, finding some way to celebrate their participation and facilitate their gift. Afterall, if your performance is a gift then their return gift should be part of the performance.
2) I think it also means finding new and interesting ways of Asking. Sometimes things will have to be funded up front or you simply won’t be able to move forward. Amanda Palmer famously raised over million dollars through KickStarter crowd-funding for a planned tour. The successful norm is for much smaller amounts though and often projects fail to meet their mark all together. The difference that Amanda makes is her direct and profound connection with her audience. She gives herself up to them entirely, that connection and communication is part of her art.
3) It means changing your view of what success is. Like many artists, I’m interested only in making enough to continue being creative. Profit and excess have very little meaning for me. But as I’ve mentioned many will measure your success as an artist by your income. It’s hard not to feel pressured by this. I find that the concept of “Right Livelihood” helps. This means finding a livelihood that DOES NO HARM. It allows you to be the artist you need to be but also requires that you make enough return not to do yourself or your loved ones any harm – in other words, to gain a reasonable and responsible income. Striving for a Right Livelihood feels like a worthy and achievable goal.
4) It means being aware of your own Gift. It’s no mistake that artistic talent is referred to as a Gift. We are all familiar with those moments when we’ve created something that seems to come through us, rather than from us. In order to successfully share your Gift and ask others to help you support it, you have to know it, explore it, develop it and bow into its service. This means not changing or corrupting it to someone else’s vision. James Stenhouse tackles some of this in his excellent blog How to make a living as an artist where he exhorts us to never “… let ANYONE tell you what kind of work you should be making. EVER”.
5) Finally, I think it requires a community; a minimum number of individuals who understand and value the concept of Gift enough to keep it moving, to return it and gift-it-forward so that we can all then know that we are part of the whole. The greater that community is, the more successful the approach will be. I may be wrong in this. I’d be interested to know what you think.
That seems like a great place to end. But I’d love to keep the conversation open. Please leave your thoughts and comments and I will endeavour to answer each of them.
Eisenstein, Charles 2011 Sacred Economics. Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition. Evolver, Berkeley, USA.
Hyde, Lewis 2012 The Gift. How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. Canongate, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Musicians, painters, actors, directors, performers of all kinds; there are more of us than there are regular, paid jobs. This is a fact, so how can we survive and make art that we can be proud of at the same time?
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JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer deeply in love with her landscape and her life!
"Thank you very much for joining me here. Please read on to explore more about Working in the Gift and my joint passions of participatory arts and the Devonian landscape." JoJo :)