At the Royal Court Theatre on 17 January, a packed and enthusiastic house greeted its former Artistic Director Max Stafford-Clark, founder of theatre companies Joint Stock and Out of Joint, for a platform presentation in which he spoke about the writing of his new book A Journal of the Plague Year and answered questions from the audience.
He described the book as being both “a howl of rage” at Arts Council England’s round of funding cuts announced in March 2011 and a personal memoire. To give the flavour of the latter, it began with the reading of a very amusing extract from his description of working on a production for Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in New York but rapidly moved on to his outlining of the savagery of the cuts, not just for his own company Out of Joint but for so many others and not only on the ability of his company to survive but the wider effect on the encouragement and support of dramatists and provision of educational services.
The book itself quotes verbatim correspondence between Max and the company’s ACE contact. Max outlined the difficulties of communication in which his specific questions never got specific answers and where suggestions that the company should seek to serve the country’s “cold spots” never produced an explanation of what those “cold spots” were. Max himself defined them as anywhere more than 50 miles from a repertory theatre.
He spoke of the way in which accumulated reserves had been dug into to help companies survive and of how companies had responded to ACE’s pressure to raise income from sponsorship. In the case of Out of Joint, initially with some success, but that is not something that can be ongoing. Especially with individual generous donors, it was not possible to go back with a begging bowl the following year.
Questions and comments from the audience raised issues such as making tickets more easily available whether by putting on sale only on performance day, “airline style” pricing with early booking cheaper and price gradually rising or selling a whole season.
On making theatre available to school-age children, Max told of schools who had booked for their work having to cancel because of lack of funding and that Out of Joint itself had helped to fund transport for school parties both from Plymouth and Camden to ensure they could attend their shows.
While it has become usual (and necessary) to point out the contribution theatre makes to the national economy in excess of its subsidy, the audience raised the need to encourage audiences themselves to lobby government and reaffirm the value of and need for theatre in their lives. There was a reminder from the audience of the My Theatre Matters campaign which is already spearheading that.
Max quoted Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of English National Ballet, who says that funding cuts are making it increasingly difficult to make the decisions that reactivate and take an art forward, a sentiment with which he entirely agrees.
Asked about what advice he would give to would-be directors, Max said that the theatre was full of ambitious and talented young directors—and (jokingly) declared that he hates them! He felt it was important to decide what you love and what you hate and to develop our taste. He spoke of some that he admired (keeping stum about those he didn’t) among them Michael Blakemore, Garry Hynes and Richard Eyre—who cleverly always chooses the best collaborators!
Max, always a supporter of new writing, suggested as time ran out and the presentation had to end that, “if you write to change the world and we elect David Cameron, you can hardly say that you succeeded.” A sobering thought to close on.