Public spending cuts to the arts damage society as much as the arts themselves, argues Jenny Hughes.

In his book, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Mark Blyth summarises an economic policy of austerity as “a morality play, one that has shifted the blame from the banks to the state. Austerity is the penance – the virtuous pain after the immoral party – except it is not going to be a diet of pain that we all share. Few of us were invited to the party, but we are all being asked to foot the bill.”

The use of theatrical language to provide an explanatory metaphor for austerity is provocative for a theatre researcher like me. Blyth uses the metaphor to make the point that austerity is founded on ‘theatrical’ and/or ideologically-driven narratives rather than evidence-based analysis of the causes and consequences of the economic crisis.

But how is austerity affecting actual theatre-makers caught up in this morality play, and how are they responding? Cuts to public sector spending, which provides essential support for institutional, community-based and grassroots theatre-makers nationally, are continuing to have a damaging impact on the theatre-making ecology.

Debates about payment for artists, the lack of socio-economic diversity in the theatre industry, the threat to arts in schools, as well as a growing realisation amongst socially-engaged theatre-makers that poverty might be an ‘elephant in the room’, have become more prominent.

Austerity leads to an inevitable narrowing of the stories that get told on theatre stages, and of the range of people that get to enact those stories. Here, austerity’s self-destruct button – the way it produces, as Blyth suggests, precisely what it is trying to avoid, economic insecurity and impoverishment – is being thoroughly activated.

Publicly-subsidised theatre practice may not appear profitable when measured in purely economic terms, but it provides the energy that underpins one of the most successful sectors of the UK economy – the creative industries – as well as arguably lessening the burden on other areas of the public sector by improving quality of life, well-being and social cohesion of communities.

A one-day symposium, Making Theatre in the Midst of Austerity, brought together more than 80 makers, researchers, arts professionals and community members to explore how austerity is affecting the theatre sector. The day reflected the diversity of concerns relevant to this theme – there were presentations on theatre in sites affected by poverty, the impact of austerity on theatre buildings, the precarious economies of theatre-making, the politics of participation and representation, theatre activism and community-based initiatives.

We heard about theatre initiatives that combatted isolation of communities, broadened horizons, recognised and affirmed the value of stigmatised neighbourhoods, contested reductive narratives of poor communities, and reclaimed public space. There were also more difficult conversations about the economic inequalities between organisations inside the theatre sector, as well as the prevalence of stereotypical and flattened-out representations of ‘the poor’ on stage.

Whilst the day did not provide a magic bullet for combatting austerity, it did provide an opportunity to come together to develop a more robust articulation of, and responses to, pressures on artists as well as audiences and communities. Such responses included speculations about the potential for creating innovative relationships between established and emerging organisations, supporting campaigns for payment of artists, resisting artistic silos that create false divides between different kinds of theatre practice / practitioners, and making better use of existing resources in the theatre commons. Nothing new here, perhaps, but feedback from the day showed that the opportunity to make contact – to be in touch with the issue of austerity, and with each other about it – was valued.

The symposium was part of that interrogates the relationships between theatre, poverty and economic inequality in selected historical and geographical sites. We have worked with theatre initiatives in Greater Manchester and are currently developing conversations with art companies engaging with economic justice projects across the world.

A frequent request received whilst doing this work has been for the kind of research that demonstrates economic effectiveness. Whilst there is certainly a role for impact studies, this request arguably reproduces the morality play identified by Blyth.

Here, there is a (false?) promise of value that accrues from proving our effectiveness as economic units. As part of this, each ‘unit’ – artist, organisation, or theatre-making community – is encouraged to manage themselves as an investment portfolio rather than a politically-aware contributor to democratic culture. (See Wendy Brown’s recent book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.)

Instead of participating in this morality play, we sought to develop a research project that enhances and supports the theatre commons by creating a free online resource (launched at the symposium).

To date, this comprises of more than 150 documents relating to theatre, poverty and economic justice projects locally, nationally and internationally. We wanted to create a research platform whereby some of the informal, makeshift and formal know-how, creativity and intelligence contained in the everyday life of a theatre initiative could be captured and communicated to a broad audience.

The idea here was to share that know-how in a raw, rough and accessible way than what would be ‘normal’ practice in academic research – that is, to produce a research article or book.

This research isn’t about providing evidence of how theatre-makers have been economically effective, then. Rather, it is about articulating and circulating everyday knowledge that evidences the riches, broadly conceived, of theatre-making in times and places of austerity, and we hope that this will support artists, new and old, through some difficult times ahead.