Cllr Ben Stevens Keynote Speech
Good afternoon, thank you for inviting me to address you all today and welcome to The Guildhall. My name is Ben Stevens, I’m a councillor on Bath and North East Somerset Council and I’m currently the Executive Member for Sustainable Development.
Sustainable Development is a pretty wide brief that includes economic development, regeneration, skills and employability, project delivery, heritage, tourism and, importantly, arts and culture.
I studied English Literature and Drama at Bath Spa, because I’d always wanted to be a Director. Thinking creatively, building a vision and then working to make that vision happen. That was what I enjoyed, what I still enjoy in my current job on the Council. And by the way I don’t know if my own megalomania grew a politician from a director or if directing bred the megalomania but anyway…
I set up a student theatre company, although we thoroughly resisted being called a student theatre company, and we did shows up at Bath Spa, took a show up to the Edinburgh Fringe and to a theatre Festival in Paris.
So I’ve loved the theatre for a long time, and while my company broke up as people got real jobs and we spent every penny of our combined savings, I hope that one day I’ll come back to the fold and get back involved.
I was amazed by how much I learnt over the period I was involved in the theatre, not least that you have to be a real masochist to decide to drive to Paris. In a 4 car convoy. With only one map. But that’s another story…
The vast majority of theatre practitioners are essentially voluntarily, while working another job, and often it’s really not appreciated that the skills you pick up in theatre, will transfer so easily into your other lives and add to the wider workforce.
Actors learn people skills, spatial awareness, narrative form, directors learn logistics, budgeting, finance, leadership skills, and writers learn not to kill a director or producer who demands yet another rewrite.
We know that the arts currently contribute £5.9billion worth of gross value added to the UK economy. We know that £856 million per year is spent by tourists visiting the UK specifically for the arts. Across England, the performing arts was responsible for 32,700 full time equivalent jobs in 2010.
Here in B&NES, the creative industries are now worthsomewhere in the region of £800m -more than the tourism and heritage sectors. Cultural activities create over 6,000 jobs in the local economy. The economic value of culture is at least £157million every year, and you’re all part of that.
And I haven’t even touched on the fact that theatre can be one of the most emotionally immersive, captivating art forms. All the above highlights to me why we must make sure that the theatre survives.
We’re in tough times. It’s the ultimate political cliché, but sadly it’s true and sadly, despite the fact that the economy is growing, times will continue to be difficult. If we are to survive and I believe we must, then we need to keep theatre relevant and new. And that’s why I’m so pleased to be here and be part of this conversation about how we can make sure that theatre in Bath matters.
So, briefly, I want to throw in some thoughts on theatreadapted from a couple of blog posts I wrote when I was still a practitioner.
In about 1640, the French Philiosopher, Renée Descartes was having an existential crisis. How could he be sure he existed? How could he know, for sure, he was still in the world? As I’m sure we’ll all aware, he came up with that famous phrase- Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am.
Discounting West End Theatre that basically exists in it’s own bubble, the theatre has seen a sharp decline in audience numbers, and this has put us in the same existential crisis. How can we make sure we exist? How can we make sure that we are still relevant? How can we make sure that we are still present in theconsciousness?
I think therefore I am.
The phrase carries an assumption: if we stop thinking, we stop existing.
In order to exist fully on stage, the actor needs to think, to engage. A thinking, studious actor is an asset to his company. He is able to engage fully with the other actors and characters on stage. He is able to exist to an audience. If he is not thinking and engaging then the audience switch off, and he ceases to exist. He is both the character and the actor, playing an outward role and interrogating his performance.
That same duality must be true for the whole company, constantly looking inward and outward. Looking at the world around us, and responding. Looking at the company and interrogating ourselves about our art form.
And I think there are 3 key areas we should think about- we need to think about why we do what we do, we need to think collaboratively, and we need to think innovatively. Taking each on in turn:
Theatre needs to think why.
Why do we do what we do? For me, and I suspect for everyone in this room, it’s not about becoming rich oreven, really, making a living out of it (granted that would be nice). For me the arts are about producing something creatively brilliant, culturally and politically relevant, and interesting to watch. And yeah, I guess Ican afford to be idealistic from my vantage point, butthe key point remains. You have to find your own reasons for doing what you do and really interrogate yourself about why.
There’s no doubt that it will be harder in this climate to produce works of art but if you have a clear set of aims and intentions, something personally important to work for, it’ll act as a beacon to cling to.
Theatre needs to think collaboratively.
This partly comes from my own artistic preferences,because I’ve always loved cross discipline work. It’s something I really enjoyed creating, knitting together live music, film, painting, sculpture, dancers and actors to create something all encompassing and rounded. And when you find that really constructive collaboration with another artistic mind, the buzz from feeding off each other’s ideas is powerful. A really good partnership is a robust, frank exchange, knocking the rough edges off each others ideas.
And we shouldn’t stop with arts organisations; I’m a trustee of the Golden Oldies charity, which uses singing to improve the wellbeing of elderly people, a perfect collaboration between the arts and health care professionals.
Just yesterday I met up with the new director of Mentoring Plus, a charity that works with vulnerable young people, and they want to collaborate with arts organisations.
Theatre needs to think innovatively.
Find something new. Think creatively. Clearly when money is short, we find ways of doing things more cheaply, and we don’t have the indulgent trappings to hide behind. You can’t hide a weak performance behind a flashy set that isn’t there!
But beyond that, we’re supposed to be the creative industries so don’t fall into the trap of doing something that’s easy. When I was a university, I used to get so frustrated with the praise heaped on directors who had copied, dance move by dance move, the DVD of a musical. Where is the artistic merit in that?
Theatre is a powerful tool for societal change, and has been for thousands of years. My fear is that we don’tthink and adapt, then theatre will continue to decline and eventually die out, if not completely then certainly as a viable organ of change and reflection.
If we stop thinking, if we are apathetic towards society, then we cease to exist on a societal level. We loose our ability and our right to comment. We loose touch with society and our theatre becomes dead, devoid of lifeand truth.
Early last year I went to see the World Premier of the latest incarnation of Einstein on the Beach. Withoutgetting too “fan boy” it was quite simply one of the greatest pieces of work I’ve ever seen, a beautiful meld of modern theatre and minimalist opera between the composer Philip Glass and the director Robert Wilson.It was collaborative, innovative and well thought through. The partnership wasn’t an easy ride, the really worthwhile ones never are but to me it showed the value of thinking why, thinking collaboratively, and thinking innovatively.
And none of this is all that new, but a recession forces it out of us. Think of the great work that has come out of this recession, think of the great work that was done during the Thatcher era and before.
The other day, the BBC did a series of short interviews with some of the mover and shakers as they were coming out of the UK Theatre Awards. The Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC summed up the state of British Theatre by saying: “British theatre is in a pretty healthy state, particularly artistically. Austere times can sometimes put a fire in one’s belly and I think that’s happened. There are some great new voices coming through. And there’s a political bite to some of our work. At the same time, it’s been a very tough year.”
And I suspect, looking round the room, that there’s the same sense of optimism here. You’re in good health. It’s going to be difficult but you’re in good health.
It really is the political cliché but these are tough times for the council, and sadly the arts is never going to be a priority spend for a council that’s having to make huge cuts.
As many of you know the Council has recently changed the way we do arts funding, moving from a grants based system to a procurement system. This change was partly to bring us in line with nationally accepted practices, but primarily it was about introducingtransparency into the system, both for the local taxpayer and the arts community.
The taxpayer can be confident that their money is being spent on achieving the objectives set out in each tender document.
The arts community have a better idea of what pots of money are available, what they’re bidding for and why they did or, crucially, didn’t get the funding. In theory it opens up a relatively closed shop.
Alongside that, the Council put out a new Arts Development Strategy, which after listening to the arts community, was withdrawn as it was clearly not fit for purpose. What we’ll be working on over the next few months is a broader strategy, taking in Arts Development, Culture and Events, really painting a picture of the kind of cultural scene we want here in B&NES.
Sadly, without that strategy, we’ve got moretransparency for the taxpayer, but its even cloudier for the arts organisations.
This is going to be a confusing year for arts funding as we sort the strategies out, but over the coming months the council will work hard to consult with the arts community on what you want from this wider Cultural Strategy, and what you want from the Arts Development Team.
I hope you’ll bear with us as we untangle those questions and engage with the process because at the end of it all, I believe we’ll have a much improvedsystem.
So, to sum up: I hope you know I’m a friend of theatre, and I hope that over the next couple of years will seethat friendly influence on Council decisions. On a very small scale I’ve sat where many of you are. I’ve filled in an Arts Council Application form, (and of course been rejected)…
So I will do my absolute best to protect budgets for the arts. I will work with the theatrical community to try and create a transparent, navigable process for bidding for arts funds. In return, I would encourage you to think about your art. Think collaboratively. Think innovatively. But above all, think hard about why you do what you do. Because that’s the best way to ensure that your theatre truly matters.