Friday, 15 June 2012

Poetry, play and the struggle for breath

I’ve been inundated with a request to fulfil my rash promise to reveal one of the ‘lines that changed my life’. I had a mind at the time to talk about ‘There is no future in England’s Dreaming’ - but come the Jubilee weekend I didn’t want to encourage my own shallow negativity, so let it pass. (In case you don’t know it, the line comes from the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, life-changing stuff to a 12 year old in the Silver Jubilee.)

Thinking of other lines though, I remembered two poems that shaped me, from the same book, the Penguin Book of Post-War Polish Poetry. I found this in the rather neglected library of my university halls of residence in Liverpool in 1984. (In fact, to be entirely truthful, I borrowed it and never gave it back as University Hall and its library were turned into flats at the end of the year.)

The two poems were ‘Dedication’ by Czeslaw Milosz and ‘The Deposition of the Burden’ by Tadeusz Rozewicz, and both – and the whole book, which also introduced me to Zbigniew Herbert – have been touchstones for not just my writing, but what you might call my cultural ambitions, if not achievements, at various points in the last 28 years. (I just had to pause after typing that number…)

Milosz’s poem includes these lines, which speak for themselves:

‘What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.’

Rozewicz’s poem I often think of when I hear writers or artists say they want nothing to do with the social or the political or the climate, and ‘just want to make their work’.  It’s so short it’s hard to sensibly quote except whole:

‘He came to us
and said

you are not responsible
either for the word or for the end of the world
the burden is taken from your shoulders
you are like birds and children

and they play

they forget
that modern poetry
is a struggle for breath’

Now, of course, D.W. Winnocott’s Playing and Reality later confirmed ‘scientifically’ what having children and doing poetry workshops in schools taught me, that play is an intensely serious and useful business, and that the playful space of art can be used to work out significant personal, political and social issues in ways direct address cannot. But these poems had a powerful affect on me. Catch me in the right (or wrong) mood and ask me what art of any kind is for and I will still answer ‘the struggle for breath’.

In some ways the impact of this book was restricting – as strong influences often can be – and it took me many years of writing and reading to work out how to begin to integrate the minimal, no-fuss, ‘anti-poetry’ of the post-war Poles into something truer to myself, that used more of the tools available to me – rhythm and sound especially. I fell into the trap Milosz warned of in his introduction, that his book, published by Penguin in 1970, might ‘help the present tendency to write ironic or sarcastic poetry’.  As he says ‘We should not forget, however, that irony is an ambivalent and sometimes dangerous weapon, often corroding the hand which wields it.’  It was probably only when I got to grips with New York Poets like John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara - and my contemporaries influenced by them - that I started to loosen up and write like play and pleasure need not be betrayals, after all.

(The other great thing this book did for me was introduce me to the fantastic, world-changing, Penguin Modern European Poets series and related anthologies. The sight of one - and their great covers  - in a secondhand bookshop still sets the pulse racing a little.)

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Theatres sustaining communities sustaining theatres

This week I took part in the Theatres Trust's annual conference, Delivering Sustainable Theatres. I chaired a panel discussion looking at lessons learnt from previous waves of capital development, the changes to the National Planning Policy Framework including the introduction of duties to consider local cultural needs and well-being, and the architectural and technical advancements of recent years. The whole day was useful and interesting, and even rather affirming at times, but not exactly in the way I expected.

Although there was reference beforehand to the 'triple bottom line' of sustainability for theatres - environmental, social, financial - I had expected a greater emphasis on how canny design might reduce impact on the environment, whilst saving money. Whilst this was there - and there look to be some great case studies emerging from the Theatre Trust's EcoVenues work, amongst other projects - I was struck by how many of the speakers and discussions focused on the centrality of the social function of theatres to their future sustainability.

This social sustainability, as described by several speakers, had at least three consistent aspects:
  • a theatre's roles in its town or cities as a (often) beautiful building open in the evening, which can have what one person slightly apologetically called a 'civilising' influence on the nighttime economy in some places and become symbols of civic pride
  • theatres' roles as shared civic spaces for communities to meet in, and not just for entertainment or theatrical purposes
  • theatres' roles as the home of stories for a community and its theatre artists, and most importantly for stories that matter to that community
I would suggest that you need at least two out of those three, if not all three, to do anyone one of them properly, and sustainably. This idea that if a theatre didn't matter to a place or its people, its sustainability is diminished seemed a powerful one, and connected to the idea that Dame Liz Forgan put forward that theatres - indeed, all arts organisations - needed to respond to the environmental/climate change agenda because it was right to be 'better citizens'. (There was agreement with this, despite some acknowledging the difficulty at times of being a better citizen when that means spending more money when you don't have it, or adjusting your behaviour in a very uncomfortable way, like not programming in a particular way which increases your heating bill.) 

This discussion meant I didn't ask my version of Diane Ragsdale's questions about what are we sustaining some artforms for, as there were powerful answers coming from places as different as Greenock, Matlock and Barking, just to mention places with a k in. Connecting the art form to the locality through deep partnerships of bodies, venues and audiences came out as a clearly lived way of building what I would call adaptive resilience. I was reminded of a mission statement I once had an oar in shaping about putting the arts at the heart of national life: despite the challenges there seemed to be that sense again: we need to deliver sustainable theatres not for the environment, not for economic gain, not just for bums on seats or arts development, but for the whole shooting match and the resultant contribution to civic life. As I summarised at the end of the panel discussion, it seemed as if the mindset and the technology might now be coming together to really create some resilient ways to deliver sustainable theatres.

There were lots of practical ideas for reducing the environmental impact of theatres, and through that their cost, or is it the other way round? No matter. Many of these can be found in a very useful looking guide produced by the Theatres Trust and Julie's Bicycle and launched at the conference. (We all got nifty bamboo USB sticks with it on.) Energising Culture is aimed at all arts organisations, not just theatres, and should be on every CEO's reading list - and probably the board's too.