As the Independent Theatre Council celebrates its 40th anniversary, its members discussed touring, artists’ pay, inclusion and much more at its recent conference. Charlotte Jones reports.

Image of Jenny Sealey at ITC
Jenny Sealey at the ITC conference

In 1974 the union closed shop meant that you could not work in professional theatre without an Equity card and you could not get an Equity card unless you worked professionally in theatre. Spot the problem! The 25 small theatre companies that founded the Independent Theatre Council (ITC) that year joined together to campaign for recognition for this sector both from Equity and the Arts Council (of Great Britain as it was then). 40 years on some of those companies are still successfully operating (Hull Truck, IOU Theatre, Red Ladder, Paines Plough and Pentabus, to name a few), and over 400 more independent companies and producers have joined them. ITC defines ‘theatre’ very broadly as “anything live with an audience” and there are no strict criteria for membership. Members simply have to sign a values statement and commit to:

  • bringing high-quality, imaginative art to the widest possible audience
  • providing the best possible working conditions and pay
  • promoting inclusion, equal opportunities and diversity
  • sharing knowledge and experience with peers.

At our 40th anniversary conference at the Southbank Centre in September, peers shared their knowledge and experience, exploring the values, roots, current state of play and potential future of the independent theatre sector through members’ provocations and panel discussions. Here are a few edited highlights of issues raised in a fluid dynamic of shift and status quo.

Companies in this part of the creative industry are used to doing a lot with a little

Predictably, touring was high on the list of member preoccupations. Nick Williams, from ITC founder member Actors Touring Company, posed the provocation ‘Touring is dead…’. The response from Jonathan Petherbridge of London Bubble was, “If it isn’t, it certainly smells funny.” Touring has been the life blood and raison d’etre of the independent sector for at least the 40 years of its recognised existence, but it faces the perfect storm of venues in serious financial trouble, increased travel and accommodation costs and dwindling audiences. Fees (where they can be commanded at all) have not gone up in 20 years and Arts Council England (ACE), despite having a strategic touring fund, has no touring strategy. Successful touring needs a mechanism for distribution, strong and developed relationships with audiences, and a critical mass of work. It used to be that some companies exist to tour, some companies tour to exist and some companies have touring thrust upon them. Now that fewer companies exist, or are properly funded to tour, we no longer have the critical mass required. ITC companies are still creating high-quality, imaginative art, but are they being sufficiently enabled to reach the widest possible audiences?

Artists’ pay was the next big issue. Since the union closed shop ended in 1989, union-recognised industry standards have formed a core part of our members’ voluntary code of best possible working conditions and pay. A strong call was made to ensure that all funders and public agencies insist on industry standards of pay and fund accordingly. Strong concerns were raised at the erosion of artists’ pay and conditions, and the increased use of unpaid internships in the arts. The independent sector is highly motivated to resist this trend, but increasingly under-resourced. Several good ITC companies lost their NPO funding in the last ACE funding round including founder member Red Ladder. Only a quarter of ITC companies are regularly funded and ACE’s Grants for the Arts is increasingly over-subscribed.

Graeae Theatre’s Artistic Director, Jenny Sealey (pictured above), raised the greatest call to arms when she told the 185 assembled members about the disastrous changes and cuts to Access to Work. Companies like Graeae have revolutionised the position of disabled artists, but these new restrictions will mean that many disabled practitioners will no longer be able to work. Some, she said, might even have to return to residential care without this vital service. Deafinately Theatre’s Artistic Director, Paula Garfield, reinforced this message in a highly charged discussion about the ‘right to perform’ in which representatives of Blue Apple and Heart and Soul strongly raised the position of learning disabled artists.

Inclusion, equal opportunities and diversity still formed the backbone of discussions. This is a sector that cares passionately about challenging elitism and discrimination. Sessions about women in theatre, black theatre, disability and next generation artists all gathered large dynamic discussion groups and concluded that a lack of representation in the profession is a social justice issue. Recommendations included the following: larger funded organisations should be audited on their diversity outputs and named and shamed; an organisation’s aesthetic should be encouraged to be more diverse; the economic argument about box office returns is bogus; and role models need to be developed in classroom scenarios to inspire the next generation of dramatists and theatre makers. There is a direct correlation between education and the development of the cultural sector.

Susan Croft provided a backdrop for the event with part of her Unfinished Histories exhibition, which depicts the radical roots of the independent sector in the alternative theatre movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

In conclusion, the ITC sector is proud of its radical roots. We are committed to continuing to adhere to our strong founding values of providing life-changing art for the many not just the few, promoting inclusion and diversity, and providing and ensuring decent conditions, pay and viable careers for artists and practitioners. These are tough and uncertain times but the mood of our anniversary conference was upbeat and dynamic. Companies in this part of the creative industry are used to doing a lot with a little, making scarce resources go a long way and staying in touch with their audiences and participants.

By far the biggest concern of the sector is the question: “Where will tomorrow’s artists and practitioners come from and how will their careers evolve?” As ACE obsesses over its portfolio and fails to notice or nurture the wider arts ecology, how will we level the playing field and ensure the equality of opportunity that should make us a civilised society?

Charlotte Jones is CEO of the Independent Theatre Council.
www.itc-arts.org

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