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> > > One man’s weekend as a moth at Devoted & Disgruntled 7

8 March 2012

By freelance theatre-maker and consultant, Danny Braverman

Devoted and Disgruntled tattoo

Devoted and Disgruntled tattoo

The lovely people at Improbable Theatre have been producing 'Devoted and Disgruntled', an Open Space event, for six years now. The question is more or less the same every time: what should be done about theatre in the UK? As it's an Open Space event, the power is handed over to the gathering. It's up to those of us who show up to decide what will be discussed, how the conversation will progress and to take responsibility for what happens next.

I have to confess that whenever I've attended, I get frustrated more by those who aren't there than by those who are. Notable by their absence, or rather by their lack of significant presence: commercial producers; the RSC and the National Theatre; producing theatres; Black and Asian people; and disabled people. It would be unfair to say that the event is only touring companies, freelancers and the 'fringe' (whatever that is) talking to itself – but it’s almost that. It’s certainly not the genuine cross section of the theatre community I’d love to see under one roof.

The subjects covered this year ranged from a few bordering on the trivial (“Impro without cock jokes” anyone?) to a whole range of important and pressing subjects. Personally, I was glad to see the following discussed:
• Autism and theatre
• Class issues, including ticket prices and working-class depiction
• Diversity – broadly and narrowly
• Political theatre
• Theatre and health, dementia, Alzheimers
• Women and theatre
• Young people’s theatre

Our genial facilitator was the ever-playful Phelim McDermott, who as usual reminded the throng that, unlike more conventional conferences, it's not essential for attendees to stick out every discussion to the bitter end. You are encouraged to be a bee (cross-pollinating ideas) or even a butterfly (fluttering about looking pretty, having interactions on the margin). I was certainly in the mood to be fluttering, but was definitely in the musty top-age quartile, so relaxed into my role as a moth, flitting in an uncoordinated way searching out light. And I found some. By accident, of course.

In Open Space we're encouraged to expect the unexpected. It comes across a bit new-agey, but actually the charm of D&D is that it's a refreshing antidote to the compulsion culture and death-by-Powerpoint of most professional forums. So, I spent the best part of two days chatting and musing. I have come away without any answers or, thank God, an action plan. I have been thinking, though. Uppermost in my mind has been the notion of theatre genealogy.

1. A line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor: “combing through the birth records and genealogies”.
2. The study and tracing of lines of descent or development

The room, an echoey chamber used for boxing bouts, was full of bright young things, all eager and, mercifully, thinking a bit about politics. It seems the achingly hip art-for-art sake squad, focusing their energy and venom on the evils of 'narrative', are in retreat. There seems to be a newfound political engagement: a positive paralleling the Occupy Movement coming out of our new age of austerity. I have to confess that at the beginning of the weekend, I found myself wincing every time the bright-eyed evangelised about a wonderful innovation, that in truth was a commonplace for community and Theatre in Education (TIE) companies a quarter of a century ago. But I soon realised that that was my inner-Scrooge taking over. What's important is that those of us now a bit longer in the tooth point to a tradition; it's OK and actually inspiring to be part of … whisper it … a movement. 

The day after D&D, I was prepping to run a workshop on Drama and Citizenship. I blew the dust off my own book, Playing a Part: drama and citizenship. I'd quite forgotten that Philip Hedley, my old boss at Theatre Royal Stratford East, had written a lovely foreword. Philip had, as is his habit, pointed to the fact that my work with young people was carrying on the proud tradition of Joan Littlewood. Yes, in terms of theatre genealogy, I am Joan's grandson! That's a humbling thought.

This led me to think about all my other theatre parents, godparents, aunties, uncles and cousins; distant and not-so-distant. I remember being inspired by John McGrath of 7:84 Theatre visiting Birmingham when I was a student and talking about popular socialist theatre; the TIE pioneers who confronted, harangued and encouraged at Standing Conference on Young People’s Theatre conferences (sadly, no longer standing); and how I floated curiously into a workshop in 1985 run by Augusto Boal and found out about Forum Theatre from its pioneer. Of course, we learn from peers and, sometimes uncomfortably, from the fresh approaches of emerging artists too – this is not just about the wisdom of elders. However, there is a huge value from learning from people who’ve been round the block a few times. As much as anything, we learn from mistakes. As someone at D&D pointed out, the most valuable book is not the one that trumpets successes, but the case studies of catastrophic failures.

As the weekend progressed, my disposition shifted from cynicism to cautious hope. The cause for my optimism was to be in an environment where the experience I’ve accrued was useful. When a young theatre-maker talked about bi-lingual work in Bengali and English I could point her towards the pioneering work at the Half Moon Young People’s Theatre 20-odd years ago.

“Who knew?” She said.
“A few”, I said “and here’s where you may find them”.

Maybe I’ll have ended up putting her in touch with a theatre aunty she never knew.

So, for those people who didn’t turn up, you denied the rest of us valuable conversations across and between theatre generations. I would have liked to witness disabled artists discussing “do we need the RSC?” - as well as someone from the RSC; both were absent from the feast.

D&D was a bit like being at a big wedding where relatives are talked about, but not there to be part of the celebrations. And like the family wedding, there would, of course, be unease when cultures clash. But, I’m attracted to the prospect of battling with difference within the extended theatre family – and isn’t discomfort ultimately essential to learning and creativity?

You can still join the conversation by commenting on the reports on the 'Devoted and Disgruntled 7' blogspot



14 March 2012

First D&D I went to had no access and worked like what felt a sprawling rotating chaotic mess with loads of twee visual prompts that got on my nerves. The second one aimed at disabled people tried to build in access but it was ineffective for visually impaired people. I have no idea who they consulted with about this. I hate open space events as a result and keep well away from them.


8 March 2012

hello danny

this article strikes a deep chord with me and it is wonderful to be part of a movement.


adrian jackson

8 March 2012

well done Danny resisting, just about, old fart-dom. Its always a challenge, but actually thats at least partly because D and D does attract the idealist, which is its point really....Had I been there maybe I might have stuck up for the RSC, who have in their time been stalwart supporters of ours, under the generous guidance of Michael Boyd, a man who definitely embraces all that is theatre. And anyway, is not the mantra of Open Space that the people in the room are the right people....a x


8 March 2012

Hi Danny, im really interested in Improbable and D+D looks really interesting, mmy ears pricked up when i heard you talk about Forum! It would be nice to speak to you if possible? My contact details and i have some work around this site, check out my work and id like to have a natter, maybe over coffee, im a sucker for a strong cappuciino! Look forward to it



8 March 2012

Really interesting article about D&D.

Disabled artists may not be attending because the structure of the event may seem not to be accessible in the widest sense of the word. There is no doubt that a lot of the topics are interesting and of interest to any theatre maker, but considerations around organising access support at the weekends for individuals can be challenging.

It would be interesting to hear other peoples views.

liz porter

8 March 2012

I would have been there Danny, as have previously been to two D&D open spaces, but was with Improbable in spirt being at the fantastic 'The Devil and Mr Punch on the Saturday (family comittments on the Sunday)but certainly sthought about what I might be missing

My experience of open space has been mixed a great place to spark off or be part of ineractive conversations, that provoke thought and exchange of frank views. Perhaps a space to reflect self action too.

But it can be daunting, the venue is huge and very echoey so not the best place for someone with a visual and hearing impairment. However when I've been to D&D the improbable team have always tried to meet my access needs which meant i could take part as an equal participant - in general, something that doesn't usually happen at any training or conference type event. Where imporbable could imprve here is more active marketing.

Having worked with Improbable before as assistant producer for Lifegame at the Lyric two years ago I found the company to be inspiring and genuinely wanting to improve their committment to developing access and relationships with disabled and deaf performers/producers/audiences. I am disappointed to learn that there weren't any disabled or deaf people at this year's D&D for there were a few at both the last two I've been to, allbe very few. But forging connections take time and energy

If I'd been there this time round I'd have joined the discussion on class and pricing and thrown in a bit about concessions and access too. I'd have thrown in a question for producers to actively consider good practice around access at production and partnership agreement level 'what is the cost of good access - how do we really achieve it'

I'd have come up with a few more too.

Maybe Improbable will get round to an open space dedicated around such issues.

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