Andy Burden Keynote Speech

The Artist, The Organisation and The Industry

I started with a classic improv game where the audience answered questions to describe an imaginary room as I walked around it


That was an act of “shared imagining”

Theatre is about imagination and a freedom to explore, to celebrate your own individual interpretation.  Its human, its universal it is free-thinking.

This afternoon I will be provocative.


(What Do You Do?)

So my job right now is Development Director and Manager of The Natural Theatre Company.  I am also a freelance director.  I think of myself as a theatrical artist.

I wonder how many other people here count themselves as theatre artists?

I wonder how many other people have had this experience: Am at a party with lots of “non-arty types” –  a Plumber, a Dentist, a systemsanalyist, a shopkeeper, an accountant, a builder, a councillor, a train driver, an accountant. And I am talking to a cafe owner who asked:

CAFE OWNER- ​And what do you do?

ME-​​​I’m a theatre director

CAFE OWNER- ​Oh do you direct at in The West End?



ME-​​​Do you go to the theatre?

CAFE OWNER- ​I don’t really like theatre – I went to something about two years ago, but it wasn’t very good.

I said, “oh I’m sorry” apologising for the whole industry.

What I should have said to the cafe ownerwas: “I know what you mean.  I went to a cafe in Aylesbury once that was rubbish, so I have not drunk or eaten anything since.”

Compare that story to when we opened Count of Monte Cristo in Salisbury Playhouse studio.

It was a tricky show with three actors playing everything.  Inevitably the show needed some “bedding in”    The opening night was a busy house, with all the usual first night problems in a demanding show for the cast.

After the show I walked on the stage and there was a man – just standing there –

MAN  – ​Did you have anything to do with that?

(my god, he’s realised they skipped three lines in scene 4 and that act 2 had started with one of the actors in the wrong clothes)

ME – ​​Err I am the director

MAN – ​That was brilliant, amazing – I have never been to the theatre before and now I am going to come every week.


People like me are often telling everyone how we reflect and affect society, how we are essential because we talk to everyone.  But do we?  And if we do, do we really celebrate that with our audience? If not, Why don’t we?


(The Idea)

Let’s think about this:    An artist and has an idea – a brilliant formless hunch:  a great burning need to communicate to an audience.

How to get this idea to come to life? – So we tell people and without a thought, other artists love the idea and soon we get a team of actors, designers, directors and writers to make this into a performance.



So where do we get the money?  Often we are drawn into the world of the Arts Grant. Looking for every possible avenue for getting grant income.  The Arts Council has very clear aims an objectives, so we put a huge amount of effort into proving that we fulfil those objectives (even if the project won’t)  So wealter the project to shoehorn it into a funding stream.  We may then apply to a local authority that has a completely different set of objectives and once again we alter what we want to do to fulfil the criteria.  And we do the same for sponsors and trust funds, until we have stretched the idea so its fits everyone’s criteria.

The piece of theatrical Art we wanted to create is fast being altered to something that is easy to describe on a sheet of A4 paper.

And we learn to talk the funding talk and network and impress the Arts Officers, and inside a little bit of the artist dies.



Then we have to make the theatre love the idea, but these days fewer theatres will take the punt, instead they ask you to “build a relationship” or put you on a “development programme”. These programmes can bebrilliant at the start of your career when they help you with all the other processes to get the show on – accounting, tour managing, etc ….or when they give you a chance to be challenged by experiences artists who want to get the best out of you.

But beware of competitive development programmes where you are kept in constant development. Where the “rehearsed reading” is more like a test.  Where other” in development” actors and writers and directorsare watching each other’s work, beingsupportive or ripping it to shreds. Is the best critical appraisal from an audience made upsoley of your piers?

And then little bit more of the artist inside,dies.


(The Elite)

So then we realise what we really need is forthe Artistic Director to see it.  So then we need to say the right things and be the right kind ofperson to get to be noticed. Or we have to get past corridors of producers, administrators and consultants…who keep the gates shut.

But I wonder if this need to talk to the arts leaders is not just for a pragmatic purpose of getting the show on – it is also a desperatesearch for validation? Is it a sense that what we create is good theatrical art?  In his book What Good Are The Arts John Carey mentions:

“Art is what the artistic elite deem to be art”

And this pressure is also covered brilliantly in Grayson Perry’s current Reith Lectures – it is art “if enough of the right people think itsgood”

And for the right people to choose to interact with us, I find its increasingly about

“the flawless equation between social rank and human worth”

which is Alain De Boton’s definition of a”snob”

And when I deal with theatrical snobs a little bit of the artist in me dies


(The Heirarchy)

A long time ago an Artistic Director told me

“so it’s a hierarchical system – we all know itswrong – buts that the way it is – you just need to suck up to the right people, Andy”

But then I think of the brilliant BenjamnZander who says that this kind of system:

” is the world of the downward spiral – A world of measurement and of comparisons, domination and hierarchy, The world of competition in which you might be energisedbut you might be demoralised – A world of fear and pressure.  A world where there is nowhere to go but down.  A world of blame, putting people down, of we won – you lost.”

If theatrical art is to mean anything – if it is to be human creative and free-thinking, then how can it be hierarchical?  If it is, is it the fault of the people we deem to be at the top? Or maybe it’s our fault for putting them up there with our desperate need to seek approval?

Yet more of the artist inside us dies.

(The Press)

And if we actually manage to get the show on, there’s the press.  I was once told by a national reviewer that the really great shows at Edinburgh were the 4 star shows, the 5 star shows are the ones that hit on the zeitgeist of this year’s festival – and they may never work outside Edinburg. So without knowing it we might start altering our making a show tosatisfy the fashions of the arts media, (that in the grand scheme of things, has a fairly small readership), develop a piece that the pressmight like …

… and inside, what’s left of the artist, dies.

The brilliant burning idea we started with   isnow a shadow of what it former self, Becausewe have been so desperate to impress the funding leaders, the arts organisation leaders,and the journalist leaders.

Why do we do this to ourselves?   And who says they are the right leaders anyway!!??  Mark Van Vugt says the modern society most often chooses the wrong leaders because their choice system is based on primeval rationales.

So what do we do to show theatre matters?  Vicky Heywood from the RSA says

“We need to examine how we have failed as artists to join the dots… how isolationist are we? How much are we still seen aloof?  Not for the people. Not for the peoplewho are not people like us…

We are not on the boards of business, retail or banks, we are not the governors of schools, we don’t stand as councillors ore Mps, we don’t become secretary of state for the arts, we don’t become Prime Minister”

Because we are so entangled into the mess that is the “theatre industry”, trying to make our mark, that however hard we try, we have lost what matters in theatre:

The audience.


If only we found our merit from the audience’s reaction,

if only we found more of our money from the audience’s tickets,

if only we found more our patronage and funding from the desire to satisfy theaudiences needs,

if only we found more of our inspiration from the audience’s ideas,

if only we found more of our direction from the audiences potential.


Like it or not: the opening of mass communication through modern technology has meant art is now being created by everyone.  The sacred knowledge of how to create art has been democratised: the people have found the key to the secret garden.

So theatre has to move on.

Because theatre matters, we must to find organisational models that are lessbureaucratic, and more inclusive – maybe we should copy high end retail, where organisations are trying to get the very best product in the hands of the people who would love that product the most, and at the rightprice.

In my experience some commercial theatre is cynical about the audience – believes the audience only wants what it already knows.

But I have also found some “artistic ” theatre is also cynical about the audience – appealing to a small, devoted, theatrical literateaudience, because no-one else will understand it.

Either way there is a temptation to look down on the audience.

Peter Brook lays out the challenge:  “Theatres must be full — to be full dishonourably is easy, to be empty honourably is even more easy, but we need to fill them honourably

As Rufus Norris has rightly said Theatre needs to “widen the net”.

Because theatre matters, it shouldn’t just appeal to its devoted audience – it needs to communicate with everyone.

So people like me who run organisations need to meet our audiences and our artists on a level playing field.  Because theatre matters, we need actively seek out good theatrical art and we need to stop placing hurdles in the way of artists and in the way of audiences.

I started with an exercise for the audience,because this is what this is about – and however much we know it – our good intentions get crowded out – by social insecurity, by heirarchical behaviour, by lack of money and by a desperate need to understand our own merit.

For people like me, here, right now, it is more dangerous than you think to trust the audience.

Let me try one more thing, from the great Bobby McFerrin:

(The Bobby Mc Ferrin Pentatonic scaleexcercise: teach the audience to sing C to a jump, then teaching D to a right jump, then jumping left and right between C and D, the audience sings, and jump one step further right – the audience should sing the E)

That last note is your note.  The audience has the power. But what happens next is up to us.

©Andy Burden 2013

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