The Playwright and Public Art

by Jonathan Meth

in National Conference

Post image for The Playwright and Public Art

(This post part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders and the two blog salons curated by Caridad Svich,  {Art | People} and {Survive|Thrive}.)

Looking at these two threads it strikes me that what is being offered up here is how we engage with, generate and find ways to transform capital: cultural capital, social capital and economic capital. There are other forms of capital of course, such as educational or ecological.

We know that theatre is mostly under capitalized – in economic terms. In essence it trades on other forms of capital – perhaps too often on the labour of theatre makers.

Some of you will be familiar with the work of French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. I don’t mean to limit discussion to his concept of how capital relates to class, although it is in the mix.

Rather I want to consider the playwright and Public Art. I quite like Wikipedia’s choice of definition:

“Public art is art in any media that has been planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all. Public art is significant within the art world, amongst curators, commissioning bodies and practitioners of public art, to whom it signifies a working practice of site specificity, community involvement and collaboration. Public art may include any art which is exhibited in a public space including publicly accessible buildings, but often it is not that simple. Rather, the relationship between the content and audience, what the art is saying and to whom, is just as important if not more important than its physical location.”

As the space between traditional political parties and big business recedes, social movements such as Podemos in Spain are wider reflectors of theatres who are now finding different ways to negotiate capitalization. There is an article about this in the New York Times of May 29th which carries a photograph of celebratory crowds gathered outside Teatro del Barrio in Madrid.

For those of you not overly familiar with European elections (and that includes most of us here in Europe) The New York Times explains:

“What it did was to shake the foundations of Spanish politics in … …denying the governing conservative Popular Party and the opposition Socialists a majority of votes for the first time since the country’s return to democracy 35 years ago”.

I’d like to hop across from Madrid to Rome and the Teatro Valle, with which some of you following the Occupy movement, or how theatres in sites of economic crisis are bring occupied, will be familiar.

The Foundation Teatro Valle describes itself thus:

“a Commons is an economic and juridic alternative model based on the self-government of the workers of art and culture and the citizens and on a direct democratic system. The principal vocation of the theatre is to be always open and alive and to offer a wide permanent education for professionals and for the citizens as a contemporary agora. Regarding the artistic vocation of Teatro Valle, we think it should be a center devoted to the italian contemporary playwriting and stage writings…. A renewed future for Teatro Valle would be a major starting point for everybody, ushering a new season of Italian cultural policy resetting art, knowledge and creativity as the center of the social system. Radical reforms capable of ensuring efficiency and autonomy in the public management, would allow virtuous actions of the private and would restore dignity to the professionals of this industry with specific laws recognising their rights”.

TVO is at first glance what we in the UK might – under a Conservative government – recognize as heritage. It is a 1727 theatre in which Mozart consorted. Ostensibly it is a space to be preserved – in this case from the Municipal Roman Authorities who would have seen it sold to developers keen to make it into a restaurant. A more extreme example of commodification would be hard to imagine (since we are in Italy, its OK to borrow from Gramschi). In creating a new contract between artists and community TVO first brought philosophers into their building and then made a commitment to develop contemporary Italian playwriting.

TVO needed to create a new way of seeing, one which would allow people to rethink the bricks and mortar of their 300 year old space. In rethinking they welcomed fellow theatre makers from across the world who have come, over many months and now years to support, to share, to perform, to sleep in the theatre. By filling the theatre with foreigners they slowly transform the way locals are able to see the space.

The challenge for such enterprises, be they social activist movements or theatres is how to move beyond the initial radical phase of overturn, of rethinking, into something sustainable which nonetheless resists commodification and remains true to its ethos.

This is a very difficult process to manage. Crowdfunding has enabled a degree of financial security allowing them to establish Foundation status. In the end I suspect that TVO’s sustainability will in part be down to persistence and that it becomes less painful for Municipal Roman Authorities to accept and work with them than to try to close them down. But what TVO are doing, is transforming capital.

Let me conclude by turning this model, as it were, inside out, for you to pull apart and remake better. My hunch is that playwrights are uniquely placed as agents for the transformation of capital, yet very poorly placed when it comes to commissions for Public Art. Too often commissioners unintentionally commodify Public Art, because they don’t see that instead of things in a space, its about a dynamic relationship between artists, place and community.

The playwright as a Public Artist– a proposal
A number of Foreign playwrights will be invited to a festival. In collaboration with domestic artists, short pieces (15-20m) will be written and produced in response to specific sites.

Experienced playwrights listen to and observe what is around them and use their skills to both give voice to others as well as imaginatively creating their own. That they come from outside the country gives them a license to create which is different. The project is designed to both provoke domestic public engagement as well as foster artist-to-artist intercultural dialogue, build relationships leading to future exchange and collaboration.

These presentations will be part of a festival.

Domestic playwrights will also be linked to the project, to provide artist-to-artist encounter and professional development opportunities. These will be modeled according to the needs of the domestic playwrights and the expertise available from the international playwrights selected to participate.

Phases of work imagined:

  1. A curated residency at a Festival in Year 1 for foreign playwrights to encounter the sites/communities and each other, as well as domestic playwrights;
  2. Time to write/rewrite. Continuing dialogue between artists
  3. preparation and facilitation of audience engagement through the Festival
  4. Public engagement and presentation at Festival in Year 2 , through animation of the sites and the communities which connect to them, with an option to collect these performances together and show them in the host theatre(s).
  5. Translations to be handed out, like pamphlets, bi-lingual, quite small and pocket-sized that people can follow and take away with them.

Jonathan Meth is currently convening the MA in Writing for Performance and Dramaturgy at Goldsmiths, London University. In October 2003 Jonathan set up The Fence, which he curates: a European network of playwrights and cultural operators – to explore issues of mobility and diversity. The Fence now has over 200 members from 40 countries and has met 19 times. He also co-curated the Janus project (developed out of the Fence) which translated 16 new plays from across Europe and presented them as staged readings at Festivals in Tampere, Finland; Graz, Austria and Leeds, UK. Between 1994-2009 Jonathan was Director of writernet, a UK based organisation whose mission was to give dramatic writers the tools they need to build better careers and change the culture in which they work. He originally trained as a theatre director at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and has worked as dramaturg, script editor, director and lecturer. He is also: Artistic Associate at Az Theatre, a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and an Expert Advisor to Ambitious About Autism, the UK national charity for children and young people with autism.