Here's Another Fine Mess You've Got Us Into! (Part 3)
So what have these three incidents from three distinct parts of the UK in common?
Sheer bungling bureaucratic incompetence, that's what.
It is hard to imagine how an organisation such as the Welsh Arts Council can go for twelve months insisting that their new plans are the only possible way forward for theatre in Wales and then, just three months before the beginning of a new financial year, do a complete about-face, thus putting the whole YPT/TIE sector in the situation of having to throw out the planning of the last nine months and start all over again.
It seems incredible that the Arts Council of England did not realise that upgraded buildings have higher running costs and that many of the venues which they so upgraded could not possibly afford those increased costs. And how could they not realise that not only is there a finite limit to the funds that businesses can provide, but also that, for most, theatre funding is low on their list of priorities?
How can the ruling body of Scotland's capital city forget a binding legal agreement into which they entered little more than a year before?
Trasedi, Comedi neu Ffars?
This was the title of one of the contributions to the Welsh debate after the U-turn. You don't need to speak a word of Welsh to understand its meaning: is the ACW Drama Strategy tragedy, comedy or farce? Looked at from a distance, it seems like a farce from beginning to end, but close to the only possible description is "tragedy". But it's not a tragedy peculiar to Wales or ACW, it's a tragedy which is endemic in governing organisations: they begin to think that because they hold the purse strings, they must therefore know more than the practitioners whom they are there to support.
They justify this by claiming that they see the "wider view", as if the practitioners are blinkered and never look beyond their own narrow world, that they are only interested in success for themselves and have no interest in the work or anything else to do with others working in the field. A classic case of projecting their own shortcomings onto others! They don't seem to realise that actors and other theatre professionals get together, exchange ideas and experiences, and support each other.
In the seventies when I was working for both the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and the Empire in Sunderland, if you listened to the politicans who had control of the theatres you would have thought there was all-out war between them, and panto time was particularly full of this rivalry: box office results were analysed down to the nth degree and there was great glee when one gained an advantage over the other. At the same time, however, the two casts were coming to see each other's show and were hugely supportive, cheering each other on and joining in the fun. I have very fond memories of panto parties where the casts got together, along with the cast from the Darlington Civic panto, and just had a really good time, swapping stories and being hugely constructive in any comments.
They wanted each other's shows to succeed, not just because they were friends but also because they wanted theatre to be successful. I saw the same mutual support among small community and theatre in education companies when I was the chair of such a company. And not so long ago, in education, I was talking to a colleague in the school which is our biggest rival in performing arts education in the area. She mentioned an idea which they had tried which had been a great success. I said it sounded great. A couple of days later a package arrived in school from the teacher I had been talking to: it contained all the documentation for the particular scheme, so I could try it out.
Now that is the "wider view". You don't get the "wider view" by pushing paper around,or looking at demographics, or even reading balance sheets. Rather you are actually narrowing your viewpoint. That's what ACW did, until they were forced, by the hostile reception their plans received from literally almost everyone in the Welsh theate establishment, to recant - or at least partially recant, for they are now saying they are delaying the implementation of the strategy by a year. What's the betting that it's quietly forgotten about?
It is the folly of management, that they can only see anything in purely management terms. I am reminded of a story told to me a year or so back by a friend who is a consultant in an NHS hospital. He was having to cancel operations and put off expensive treatments until the last possible minute because of a shortage of cash, whilst at the same time tens of thousands of pounds were being spent on building a new Boardroom! The patients' conditions were not life-threatening, so their treatment could be put off for a time, but the old Boardroom was much too inconvenient and had to be replaced!
We might be tempted to be a little forgiving towards ACE over their blindness, for they are at the beck and call of politicians who have notoriously selective vision, but surely ACE should have been telling the politicans that (a) business sponsorship is by its nature limited, and (b) upgraded buildings and equipment cost more to run. But perhaps (a) they didn't realise, and (b) they didn't realise, just as they didn't realise how much time, effort and expense goes into preparing Lottery bids. For bureaucratic organisations cannot imagine any other way of operating than their own. They cannot see that, if a theatre wants to put on the best shows it can, it must make full use of its very limited resources and spend as little as possible on administration. It is impossible for an administrator to conceive that administration is not the centre of the universe!
And of course the people who were making the Edinburgh decisions were politicians who all to often understand politics and nothing else. However they are advised by bureaucrats, and they...
But need I say more? Government really needs to recognise that the only people who really understand how to administer the arts are the artists themselves, and that very small band of trained arts administrators who have practical experience at the sharp edge of theatre or the other arts, who have the mind-set of the artist.
The current vogue for almost deifying administrators and managers has led to a belief that a single management process can be applied to any area of work. That's rubbish! It doesn't work for healthcare, it doesn't work for education, and it sure as hell doesn't work for theatre!