At the discussion for the University of Oxford’s Mephisto at the International Student Drama Festival on Thursday, director Milja Fenger was asked a question from the floor about whether there was a deliberate parallel between her piece, with theatre under threat from the Nazis, and the situation today with theatre under threat from cuts to funding from the Arts Council. Fenger responded that whilst she does mean to make theatre that has relevance today, she does not see a threat to theatre from cuts, and instead believes that we are under threat from ‘not working hard enough.’
Undoubtedly this has provoked a huge response in Noises Off and not being at the festival any more I hope I am not repeating the bulk of things already said. However, I wanted to respond to the comments mostly as a rebuttal, but also partly to offer some mitigation.
Cuts to arts funding from central government are a threat to theatre. This is a quantifiable fact. After the spending review last year, one of the 206 Regularly Funded Organisations that lost all of its funding was the National Association of Youth Theatres, which has only been saved after a high-profile campaign involving several stars of theatre. This case illustrates the threat well, because aside from the people who can stand to lose their livelihoods in one fell swoop, NAYT does a lot of work promoting inclusion in theatre for kids from all social backgrounds.
Furthermore, the axe often falls on smaller, less mainstream organisations, which curbs variety in theatre and art in general and encourages theatres to not take risks, to produce commercially viable work which will pay for itself, lest the cuts come their way. This stifles creativity and can become a form of economic censorship. As seen in Fenger’s own piece at this festival, theatre is often a site of dissent against prevailing political narratives; but if at any moment they might take away your means to do so, why would you dissent at all.
Certainly, Fenger’s first statement is not correct. However, as students at university we are often insulated from issues in the real world. At my uni, Warwick University Drama Society productions regularly make a profit. This has got to a point where the society has begun to offer an increased amount of money and individual grants, as under Union rules they are not allowed to hold more than a certain amount of money and can have it confiscated. A fairly luxurious position, it bears no relation to the real world, in which money is often pretty scarce. Fenger may not have realised this when she made her comments; I don’t know the situation at Oxford University Drama Society, but I’d venture to say that they’re not scraping around for cash.
If the first part of the comments is foolish though, the second is more dangerous. Fenger may simply have meant that theatre artists have to guard against complacency, that we must always strive to be new, to push boundaries, and not get stuck repeating ourselves. Her statement does though sound like a paraphrase of a pervasive neo-liberal agenda, which is that those who work hard get what they deserve and only slackers don’t succeed.
Patently this is absurd, but it is dangerous because it is very much in fashion as a means of justifying cuts to government subsidies to those that need them most. David Cameron used it this week, when he ironically attacked benefits as a ‘culture of entitlement’ and announced plans to remove them from those who stay on them too long. Now, there will be some people out there that scrounge off benefits. But using this as an excuse to withdraw them from anyone? This is not economic management but social persecution, and Fenger’s statement is of a type used to justify it. She may well not have meant it quite like this – in discussion things are said that are off-the-cuff and aren’t properly thought through – but if it is what she means, then the danger of this attitude finally pervading theatre is the real threat.