“Music and theatre should belong to nobody, everybody.” - Hannah Nicklin compares ‘DIY’ music with ‘DIY’ theatre
(Andy’s note: Much of this relates to UK-specific art subsidies, but much of it doesn’t.)
(Start a Revolution by Tim Etchells. Photo by Hannah Nicklin, taken at the Edgelands event, in Edinburgh, in 2011. Details of the work can be found here.)
“Theatre Belongs to Everybody; Ideas Belong to No One.” - Chris Goode
A few months ago I cried at a gig for the first time. It was Koji/Into it Over it/Starters at the Old Angel in Nottingham. Koji was onstage and he stood and talked to the sticky, buzzing room about community; about what it meant, but also about holding it to account; about knowing when to call people out, and making a community stronger. I cried for two reasons; one, to have someone stand up with a mic and give me permission to be the kind of person who stands up meant the world to me, and two; because the amazing fucking feeling of all those people living and loving and breathing the words and music in that tiny room filled me up. Filled me up in a way that until that point I had mainly associated with theatre.
I make theatre. I have had work in London, Nottingham, York, Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Derby, and worked with many other companies besides. I make odd, pervasive performance pieces; stuff you download and walk through a specific city listening to, an audio piece for the top deck of a bus at 1am in London, pick up and play games, installations for swimming pools, or a simple stand-up piece made for a pub back-room where I stand in my protest gear and talk about having a policeman for a father.
When people ask me what kind of theatre I make, I haven’t really got an answer, but I’ve realised recently that if I identify with anything, it’s what I would call ‘DIY’ theatre. In that little sweaty room in Nottingham at the beginning of Autumn, I felt the radical resonances between those two worlds I love; punk and performance - albeit one where I am a maker, and the other an audience member – and since then I have been more and more interested in what both worlds share, and what they can learn from each other.
Daniel Yates of Exeunt Magazine sums up ‘DIY’ really usefully as “small scale, culturally distinctive, alternative producers of experience” (link). That sounds a bit academic-y, but I think at the root of the ethics of DIY is something born of a place and community, and which offers a distinct alternative to the monoculture that thrives on top-down structures, (the mainstream music industry e.g.) and ‘one size fits all’ models of entertainment.
I co-ran an event in Edinburgh this summer called ‘Edgelands’, in it a guy called Tim Crouch talked about monoculture, and the best weapon we have against it; the alternative. Any alternative. All of the alternatives (link). And DIY, in my opinion, is the best alternative there is, because it’s grown and shaped by a certain place to fit and make room for the people that want to live in it. Criticisms of scalability are bollocks in this context; one top down system and thousands of homegrown artefacts meet in the middle.
The quote at the head of this post comes from a booklet given out by theatre-maker Chris Goode (link) at an early version of his most recent show ‘Keep Breathing’. The scratch (work in progress performance) happened in a dusty old factory re-named ‘Stoke Newington International Airport’ (link) where I and many others rehearse and perform for free. Action Hero (link) are a theatre company that got bored of struggling to put their work on in theatres, so made 2 pieces for bars, and another for music venues. Their home is the ‘Milk Bar’ in Bristol, a disused building borrowed from the council where several companies work and support each other’s work. The Forest Fringe (link) has become the highlight of most of the contemporary theatre’s Edinburgh festival, and fills the community-owned not-for-profit Forest Cafe buildings with performers and volunteers, who all work for food and accommodation only. The DIY theatre community is alive, kicking, and as fucking exciting as the music one, but they hardly seem to know of each other’s existence, and that seems odd to me.
There is, though, one massive difference (barrier?) between the two communities; public subsidy. Even if none of the above artists/companies are subsidised directly, the infrastructures in which they move, are.
Here’s the thing about subsidy:
1) Most music can’t get it. (This is wrong, but true)
2) Every work of art is accountable to the establishment (albeit an arms length QUANGO subsidiary thereof).
3) If you’re used to it, and then lose it, you’re mostly fucked.
4) All artists subsidise themselves, anyway. 100% at the beginning, but every single theatre maker I know frequently works for free/expenses only.
Here are some more things about subsidy:
1) Pre-existing and non-commercially driven infrastructure allows both scaling and support for those just starting out.
2) Subsidy that allows a living to be made out of things non-commercially driven allows more people to make art, for more people.
3) It means you don’t have to rely on your audience.
4) It means money begins to seem the only way to start doing things.
A mate of mine told me that a member of the Leicester music community who attended a performance event recently said ‘theatre people never seem to do something unless they can get some money for it’, and though the suggestion made me grumpy to begin with, I’d argue that is true for mid-late career companies or theatre artists. But the thing is, there are a lot more of these in the theatre world than in music. Because the stuff that infrastructure and public subsidy offers is the ability for everyone to stick with making for longer. People over 30, women, non-affluent people, are all either more likely to have caring responsibilities/family priorities, or be lacking the tools/pathways/knowhow to access the world of theatre/music, than those under 30, male, affluent. It’s the difference between scraping by, and breaking even, which makes things possible for people to live and provide by.
Theatre also has industry bodies and members’ organisations like Equity, the ITC, a-n, that actually work for their members’ interests; set living wages and suggested contracts. The kind of support that I have yet to see from majors’ sockpuppets like the MU and their pathetic finger-in-the-hole-of-the-digital-dam obsession. The theatre world is framed art-first. There is a commercial sector that resembles the majors of music, but they occupy completely different territories. Subsidy allows the non-commercial sector to exist without eventually destroying the artists who give their lives to make it.
But music can replicate some of this infrastructure without subsidy. Bandcamp, and before it myspace, has been revolutionary in terms of replacing the distribution functions of the music industry. Why couldn’t we find some form of umbrella organisation for DIY music communities which could easily begin to rival the MU; some kind of mutual or collective/s that drive standards and expectations higher, fight for transparency from Spotify, or better margins from iTunes, whilst also sharing experience/resources? A wiki-infrastructure. For example I know Leicester has the Leicester Music Collective, but how many others are there in other cities, and do they talk? Hold councils accountable for the cultural landscapes they oversee? Could donations help pay a bit of money to allow some people to put in the time to get them to run properly? (That’s another thing subsidy offers; administrators. The jobs that people won’t walk through fire to do, but that are still pretty indispensable in providing scalable infrastructure.)
There’s a criticism of both these theatre and music DIY spaces; that they can be unscalable, insignificant*, hard to find, and incredibly cliquey. The way you solve this is you invite everyone to build their own alternative, and you legitimise alternatives in the first place. What does that mean, in practice? Think about how people find you. Think about how you share skills and spaces. Think about who’s not in the room, and why they might not feel able to be. Like it or not, the fact that those who take public money are required to show how it serves the public makes theatre ask the question (though it’s rarely answered perfectly).
*sub point, fuck ‘significance’ if it always has to mean impactful on a large scale. Give me 50 people whose lives are changed over 500 whose time is filled, any day.
In turn, theatre can learn from DIY music. Theatre is live, or lived, almost by definition. The only way for most theatre to make a living is touring. Although live shows are incredibly important to music, bandcamp, soundcloud, digital downloads in general, have revolutionised audio distribution. Theatre still operates, for the most part, on a distribution system that is hundreds of years old. Big, old, dedicated buildings, weighed down by running and staffing costs. It’s time to leave these, or use them differently (the homeless and brilliant National Theatre of Wales case in point).
Theatre can also learn from the DIY music world that if something isn’t happening where you are, make it happen wherever. Don’t think money-first if you can afford the time. Ask favours of the big fish as well as the little, and pay them back. It could also work together more, share rehearsal space, kit, know-how, contacts, much more widely, efficiently, and regionally. Put theatre in non-theatre buildings, leave behind these palaces, these cathedrals to art. Put it where people are.
They can also learn from the relationship bands have with their audiences. I never heard of anyone getting a theatre company logo tattoo, or proudly, identity define-ingly sticking up show posters in their bedroom. If merch, and sales of records that people can get for free, are the main way you make any money (touring, in the experience of internationally travelled bands I know, rarely breaks even on tickets/fees vs. travel/accomm/expenses) then you have to really drive at your relationship with your fans. Theatre fails at most social media/online/audience stuff because the price of failure is not the end of their existence.
Both of these industries could also work together to show the qualitative value they bring to a community to councils, and show councils there’s more ways to support them than money; all those empty shops, all those empty buildings.
Mostly I would love to see the end of the venue apartheid. Venues where performance, music, installations, craft, libraries, kids’ groups, dance classes, poetry, print making, film screenings, food and drink all happen under one roof. Places like the (recently incredibly fucked over) Forest in Edinburgh, or STK in London.
Because quite frankly, fuck genres. Fuck art form divisions. Let’s talk to, and learn from one another. Let’s work together to fill spaces, places and people with that same burning, beautiful, winded feeling that had me in tears in a music venue last September, and does so frequently in performances. Music and theatre should belong to nobody, everybody.
Hannah Nicklin is a DIY theatre maker and punk/rock/hardcore fan from just outside Leicester in the UK. Aside from Making Things, she is also doing a PhD in how video games are changing theatre. Fun fact: she once declared digital warfare on the government when an otherwise quite rational rant about Torrents was selectively quoted in a Proper Paper. hannahnicklin.com and @hannahnicklin on Twitter.