Thinking about Independence
In the last three days- two independent seasons have be launched… BSHARP and GRIFFIN INDEPENDENT unveiled their curatorial picks of the “independent scene” for 2010.
Do you have your season booklets ready? Good. Now, close your eyes- and hold the brochures of both seasons in each hand… feel the covers. mmmmmm quality paper stock.
Now, still with your eyes closed- sniff gently at the opened mid page…. not too close you’ll scratch the tip of your nose on the staple.
What’s that smell? I hear you ask?
That’s the smell of “independent theatre.” I respond.
Independent has never looked so sophisticated, never felt so international! Independent Theatre is full of funky, film clips, its got glossy postcards… its got funding, and sponsors and a AV designer and its own DJ at the launches, its so cool to be independent!! Was it really that long ago that the programs for the upstairs Belvoir Shows were $6 and were printed on similar stuff that launches the indi season?
Idependent has never been so well supported/funded/groomed- which makes me think: “What is so independent about it?” Independent artists are NEVER independent- they rely on the asset of goodwill to get them over the line every show- good will of the actors, the venue, the key creatives, the flatmates of the key creatives, even for some the parents of the directors are the cornerstone of their productions, the social network of friends who dutifully head to the theatre because their friend is in the show… the businesses who invest cash/sponsorship in-kind are also giving of their money and their resources. Then there are grants and “funding” which list the key performance indicators, the budget reporting, the statistics of the impact of the arts activity on the community and the industry… the logos associated with which are everywhere- websites, postcards on everything. Favours, money, donations, reviews, resources. There is NOTHING INDEPENDENT ABOUT INDEPENDENT THEATRE.
These artists are unpaid, for the most part- at least upfront they aren’t paid- co-op and profit share deals are struck based on desperation to work and based on flattery and enthusiasm. They pitch projects to the companies hoping that they too can shelter under the wing of a larger bird- perhaps that larger bird has a rehearsal space- perhaps an artistic director who will attend the show, see their talent and offer them a paid gig on a bigger stage? Perhaps they will get better audiences- the prestige of working where other prestigious people have worked. But there is nothing prestigious about Independence- Independence in reality is the artists stretched thin on the drum of obligation to a million stakeholders. True artistic independence comes from a heap of cash. Cash which is without strings, cash which is without expectation of reciprocal deals. In fact I can’t think of a theatre company which is truly INDEPENDENT- all are not self sustainable- all run off government funding and donation. None are run just by bums-on-seats… all theatre is dependent.
For those who read Grotowski- we know theatre is dependent on an artist and audience interaction. Theatre is utterly dependent on audience- and bound by the programmers- and what they have faith in to bring an audience. The artists pitch plays to programmers (artistic directors) who then roll the idea in their mouths to see if it is to their taste, then they weigh up the likely hood of all this talk (the pitch) materialising into a piece of theatre which is quality- given the time, money and goodwill attached to the project or the participants. Then they take a punt. In their punt is also a set of Key performance indicators, criteria, board papers, stakeholders. No one is INDEPENDENT. Not even the programmers.
I think what this actually is – is not independent theatre- but freelance theatre… or contract theatre… where artists nestle under the wing of a larger bird and get some shelter and support for a short period. Where the larger bird can feel urban and cutting edge and sexy/bold/gritty free because they are associated with something which lives and operates in an uncertain, often volatile environment which is utterly dependent on EVERYONE. This mutualism is nearly parasitic- and the relationship defines the art. The independents are rarely approached- they must do the approaching. And in return the independent is hoping for space and the goodwill of the programmer. While the programmer can have their venue filled with enthusiastic grateful hopefuls- that can be paid post show and once the costs are covered.
This is not an “independent” wing of Belvoir- this is not an “independent” wing of Griffin- this is a very dependent wing.
Financial independence for an artist is for the very few- infact drama school is for the financially priviedged and supported… which implies that theatre is made, and perpetuated by and for the middle to upperclasses. If that IS the case- is our so-called independent theatre scene destined to be the playground of the priviledged (or perhaps the utterly ruthless)? What is the price of independence? What is the true cost of theatre? Who can afford it? What are you willing to sacrifice for your art(or career)? And who’s paying?
These are things I think about.