This autumn, almost corner to corner, day after day, you will find performances, concerts, dancing, readings, workshops, parties, screenings, seminars, pop-up kitchens, and conversation after conversation filling our spaces. A house humming with different people, big ideas and bold experiences.
On top of that, there is also all of the activity going on in the background. Many artists in residence week to week, each making their latest work, deep diving into their current curiosities. Plus all of the learning, research and policy-making we do, aimed at shaping an art world that is more inclusive and accessible, more environmentally conscientious, more just, and less precarious.
The house is a gathering point, where artists, art workers and arts organisations from near and far are invited to produce and present their work in what could almost be described as a house-share arrangement with a rich community of co-inhabitants – audiences, participants, and co-conspirators.
This community, that is vastly diverse in terms of age, background, orientation and ability, coexist at the theatre through a shared curiosity and enthusiasm for art and artists that stretch our collective capacity to think, act, imagine and dream.
Some are involved everyday, others may be just once every now and then as an audience. Still, everybody's involvement counts.
In this constellation, the shared meals, conversations, collaborations, parties, and post-show gatherings almost become as important as the art works themselves. The more varied the contact points, the more expansive the possibilities for getting involved, the easier it becomes for different people to contribute. It is this hyper-hospitality and community-building dimension of the house, combined with the urgency and magic of the art experiences, that we believe makes time spent at the theatre as deeply connecting as it so often can be.
As you read through the programme you will hopefully see all of these layers, and get a sense of how passionate we are about challenging all the preconceptions of what a theatre can be, as well as what and who it is for.
A theatre can play a central role in the place it inhabits. It can be totally transformative – expanding the ways we relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us, over and over again, in the biggest and tiniest of ways. We want that for our city and region, we want that for the artists we work with and we want that for the Performing Arts as a field.
Notes on involving people: We can, we must, we will.
There are some that want to say that such a theatre, as described here, isn’t possible. Or if possible, it shouldn’t be prioritized. They have three main concerns.
The first is that involving, for example, teenagers, differently-abled people or a group of refugees with potentially no formal art education to curate or collaborate on making an art work, can threaten artistic quality and artistic professionalism. The suggestion, in this case, is that these people cannot be trusted on the basis that they lack a combination of qualification, education or ability.
The second is that such opportunities to those without formal education steals jobs and opportunities from formally educated performing arts professionals.
The third is that giving space and focus to historically excluded groups – even if they have a formal education – can feel exclusionary to some of the majority. People may express that a certain place or programme no longer feels like it’s for them, as a result.
Here, I want to try and offer some reassurance, but equally spell out why we feel the work we are doing in this area is so worthwhile and much needed.
There’s no need to check degree certificates at the door
Firstly, art has a long history of people deemed unqualified that fundamentally altered the course of art history. Here we might speak of Mary Shelley or William Shakespeare. Mary Shelley, of course known for the fable of ‘the creature’ who isn’t able to participate in society due to not being perceived as human enough. The book, of course, questions who is in fact the real monster?
The world has endless examples of people reaching beyond their assumed domain and transforming the course of history. How would the world be without them? Teenagers Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai offer two recent examples. Malala, of course, was famously denied her opportunity to study. Lacking the required education, would we think she lacks the qualification to curate a programme at the theatre?
To have the opportunity to be involved in art is a human right, and different people face different barriers to said access, but that isn’t where the story ends, it isn’t simply about ‘doing the right thing’. While inclusion and accessibility is a focus for us, and as a human right is indeed a goal in itself, getting all kinds of different people involved in the theatre is also about expanding what a theatre can be. Nothing needs to be sacrificed in the name of inclusivity, as some have warned, yet there is a lot to gain.
An example. Throughout 2022 and into the spring of 2023, the house worked with teenagers as curators. We supported their dialogues with different artists, negotiated with them regarding how to shape a festival, collaborated with them on how to format an artist talk, and involved them deeply in rethinking the theatre as an environment for differently-abled audiences, among other things. This collaboration brought so much knowledge and new ways of working to the theatre. The teenagers asked questions, designed formats, and organised time differently to us – identifying endless possibilities for new ways of doing things that we in-house would have never discovered without them. It was a laboratory for all of us – and the formats and initiatives created by them will stay with the theatre for years to come.
Naturally not everyone will resonate with all of their curatorial choices, and that makes sense, art isn’t afterall about consensus, but this disagreement has nothing to do with their professionalism, ability or qualifications. Their choices were arrived at through careful and thorough consideration, supported by the extensive presence of some of Europe's foremost curators. Professionalism wasn’t in short supply.
The fact that someone doesn’t have a formal art education isn’t a reason not to listen to, learn from and collaborate with them. And this is no slight on those that do have extensive art education and experience, they can bring an enormous amount of brilliance also. The argument here is that those with formal education and those without aren’t in competition with each other. They can gain a huge amount from each other and what they can achieve together is boundless.
More is more
Second, there is little connection between the involvement of non-professionals and the reduction of opportunities for professionals. Typically, such work is supported through project grants that are specifically targeted. As such, the work is possible due to additional economy, adding rather than taking from the main pot.
Furthermore, these projects typically result in additional work for professionals – be they artists, curators, producers, or otherwise – in the shape of mentoring gigs, commissions and workshop invitations among other things. None of this is a downgrading of what a professional with a wealth of experience can bring. There is no need for such binary oppositions. Returning to the teenagers as an example, they programmed work that gave huge credence to craft, virtuosity and professionalism
Finally, such work is part of a process of broadening the reach of the field, the more people involved the greater the field’s reach, which in turn will increase the economy and opportunities for professionals.
It is totally reasonable for art professionals that are already struggling for space, economy and opportunities to work to feel concerned by anything that may reduce opportunities further. We at Rosendal Theatre are working to do everything we can to address this, by striving to offer more residency time, more co-productions, more presentations and more premiere opportunities than ever before. We are highly motivated to ensure that the work we do with different communities will enable more for the professional field, not less. More can be more in this case.
The joy of sharing
Thirdly, giving focus to those who have so often felt excluded can result in others feeling less seen. To that we simply encourage you to come along. Let’s practise curiosity and empathy towards each other and grow this community around art that can really do something. A tremendous amount of joy and discovery can emerge in environments where you are not feeling at the centre of it all. Spending time in the company of art made by those that are different to you can be life expanding. Alternatively, skip over the thing that doesn’t feel for you and come to the next thing instead. Also ok.
A theatre fit for today and tomorrow
And then the reality check. Yes, it’s about making space for others because it’s their human right to be included, it’s also about all the amazing joy and discovery such a move can bring, but also we must be realistic that the field we love faces tremendous challenges and these challenges won’t be solved by closing the doors to people that lack qualifications, are differently abled, or bring a different education than a formal art education.
Some of the challenges:
· In general, audiences for performing arts, up and down the country, are not growing. They are ageing and fail to represent the diversity of the places we live. Equally, the professional field fails to be representative of the society it is a part of.
· Every year more and more artists graduate, and the resources for these artists is far from growing at the same rate. The theatres and platforms there to support these artists and art workers also lack the resources required to offer what the exponential growth of these communities demand.
· There is brain drain from the regions, because artists, producers, designers and technicians don’t feel they have the work opportunities they need to thrive.
· The performing arts and the country face significant economic challenges that demand new models of working.
· Work conditions in the independent field are systemically precarious.
· The country has growing social challenges, which the theatres aren’t immune to.
· And all this in the context of a recent pandemic, climate crisis on the doorstep and war in Europe.
To begin addressing all of this – we have to be brave to do things differently – and we have to involve many more and all kinds of different people in what we are doing. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise. Theatres fit for today and tomorrow will be the ones that involve many different people in the on-going process of redesign and embrace the possibility of theatre being far beyond what anyone of us can imagine alone.