A theatre for the oppressed

Culture & Language Proximity Principle
An image of Matt Britton Matt Britton
6th June 2024 5 minute read
Theatre posters on an external brick wall

When George Osbourne first introduced austerity cuts to local public services, the arts, through local theatres, museums, arts centres, and libraries- all became victims of the fiscal chopping block. Fourteen years on, Birmingham council plan to cut funding of the city’s arts organisations by 100%. Nottingham are all set to follow suit. A loss of £1.8M in grants sank the Oldham Coliseum, a theatre that had been at the heart of its northern community for 139 years, launching the careers of local actors, such as Sarah Lancashire and Suranne Jones, as well as hosting Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and Minnie Driver at one point or another. The loss of arts council subsidy came despite Oldham being earmarked as a levelling up priority for government money for culture.

With a third of UK children living in poverty, closing the doors on local panto may be low down our compassion list. After all, can’t we all just stay at home and watch some telly? Well, it is worth pointing out that access to the arts is a proximity problem. 

Firstly, the hole in arts provision for the region sends out a message that art is something for the elite. Salford raised former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston has stated he would find it impossible to become an actor today. Expressing disappointment at lack of working-class representation in the arts, he has said his background has put him at a disadvantage of the ‘boys club of public-school actors.’ Could it be that class weaponizes the arts to push out actors that sound a specific way? Subtly sending out a message to stop aspiring for a stage, a public voice, and know your place. One less for the West End means one more for the factory.  It’s difficult for someone on an estate to believe they can be an actor, or a poet, or a sculptor. Growing up in an under-served area you might not necessarily believe the arts and culture belong to you. Closing the regional theatre hammers home this message. 

Most people do not end up putting on a codpiece for a living anyway, so what’s the big deal? Arts provision is bigger than finding the next Maxine Peake. Theatres are places where people are exposed to the ideas and beliefs of others. They are community centres for actors and non-actors alike. A safe place to meet and mingle and exchange differences. They are environments where we can put thinking on its feet. Using improvisation and devising techniques, everybody is given a voice regardless of literacy levels. Everybody gets their say. Theatre is empowerment not commercial.

 I think about facilitating a drama workshop with women in prison around resettlement. We spoke about the challenges of being assertive, not passive, nor aggressive. Learning from one another, we were then able to recreate a scene imagining a newly released woman dealing with an authority figure on the out. Each group member gave the woman things she could say or do to manage the stressful situation healthily. In effect, we were practising life skills in a controlled and supportive manner.  Rehearsing life. Equipping these vulnerable women for success, not through reading, writing, or textbooks- but from their own ideas. no reading, no textbooks. The best advice was already in the room. Drama enabled us to pick out that advice.

A dimly lit theatre stage with empty chairs in the centre

I think about a community theatre project I produced where young men from opposing postcodes learned they had more in common than what separated them. This was long before the days of social media polarisation. In today’s climate of division, the arts fight against that. They offer a safe outlet for expressing anger. They build group cohesion through working together on a set target. The arts enable us to dream and act out upon that dream. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein says, ‘If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.’ The acknowledgment here is that creativity is essential to curiosity. Stories, fairytales, art, poetry, all stimulate the imagination.  Imagination enables us to dream. In the mind of the right person a dream can bring about change. Just ask Martin Luther King. Perhaps it’s not in the interest of the status quo to give us all equal access to the arts after all. This might feel a bit of a stretch for those who think theatre is Jason Donovan crooning for his colour coat, his amazing colour coat. Try telling that to Augusto Boal, a Brazilian dramatist who created an interactive theatre inviting the public to collective transformation through acting out solutions to social problems. His school of theatre-making, used as a tool for liberation and empowerment, saw him elected as city councillor for Rio De Janeiro. 

Let’s imagine that being creative is an essential part of being human. Psychologically. Art helps process thoughts and feelings, raise self-esteem, and build community. All beneficial ways of helping to tackle the mental health crisis. It would be interesting to do the maths- what comes in cheaper a lifelong prescription of antidepressants or a course of drama workshops? 

Economically. Let’s not forget half a century ago, a boy from a council house in Allerton, taught himself guitar, and alongside his three mates, helped make England the cultural hotspot of the world. Even today Liverpool receives an annual economic boost through tourism and LIPA thanks to the fab four. 

Where does all this leave the urban church? We have seen the church respond to financial deprivation through foodbanks, job clubs, and by running money courses. I want to suggest there is an opportunity today for the church to respond to the funding cuts of arts and culture. The earliest pieces of theatre in Britain can be traced back to the church. Liturgical drama used as part of the Corpus Christi festivals, eventually evolving into the mystery plays. These public performances of biblical stories brought together whole communities. The working people of the town, not professional actors, would take responsibility for their own small part of the bigger story. All played outside of the church, in market squares, culminating in the passion of Christ. Those ordinary non-actors may not have had the language to articulate what they were bringing to the community: social interaction, improved wellbeing, raised self-esteem and inter-personal skills. Perhaps it was an excuse to sell some merchandise at the market. Maybe it was about empowerment- participating in scripture without the need to be literate. Whatever the motive- those medieval cities of Coventry, York, Wakefield, and Chester have lots to teach us about access to the arts. Perhaps the answer to austerity is to be found within the church. Or rather outside of it. Taking to the streets of our estates with the biblical stories as told by residents. Maybe reviving the passion play in your neighbourhood could also revive hope, aspiration, and wellbeing. And who knows you could find out you’re living next door to the next Maxine Peake.

Written by

Matt Britton

Matt is an actor, writer, and theatre-maker, often staging theatre for audiences and participants with restricted access to the arts. Committed to social change, his inclusive projects see him working in prisons, estates, and with those identified at risk of offending.

His most recent project has been a one-man verbatim retelling of Mark’s gospel that’s been seen by thousands nationally on estates, in schools, in pubs, at homeless drop-ins, as well as at festivals, churches and beyond.

Matt is content lead for Proximity, helping to produce spoken words, write articles, and liaise with contributors.

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