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Austerity, inequality and the arts

The arts are at risk of becoming the preserve of those from affluent, middle class backgrounds. That matters.

A production shot from Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here (Camden People’s Theatre). Credit: Joe Twigg, all rights reserved.

A woman goes on a road trip to her abandoned childhood home in an attempt to release herself from the debts that haunt her, and reclaim something that she left buried beneath the floorboards. When she gets there, she finds herself—quite literally—entangled with ghosts from her past. This is the plot of Barrel Organ’s Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here, an unsettling new play with an aesthetic somewhere between a David Lynch movie and a gothic horror story which explores the long-term repercussions of financial insecurity.

It’s the perfect fare for Halloween. After all, what could be more terrifying than the spectre of debt that is haunting austerity Britain? The average UK household debt is already over £57,000 (£57,349 to be exact), and 13 properties are repossessed every day. Like the most terrifying of ghosts, debt can seem impossible to escape, haunting our lives for years. And ultimately, debt is a way of taking ownership of someone’s time; your time is never truly your own until your debt is repaid.

The situation for young people seems particularly bleak. Unable to save due to student loans, credit card debt and overdrafts, one third of the so-called millennial generation has less than a month’s worth of savings in hand to cover their living expenses.

The subject of financial insecurity has been raising its head in theatre a lot lately. In Everything I Bought And How It Made Me Feel, Harry Giles catalogued everything they bought over the course of a year. As the name suggests, the show was an emotive account of the experience of spending money. Other recent examples are Beats & Elements’ No Milk For The Foxes, a beatbox theatre show about zero hours contracts, and The Paper Birds’ Broke, which drew on verbatim accounts of living with debt to explore our problematic relationships with money.

The reason why debt makes such a rich departure point for creative exploration is that it isn’t an abstract idea for many artists—it’s the reality they are living with every day. Barrel Organ—whose members are all in their twenties—calculated that the company involved in making the show owe around £300,000 between them.

In a recent blog, theatre maker Daniel Bye—a well-established name in contemporary theatre circles—wrote about a series of conversations he’d had with ‘ostensibly successful’ artists, who confessed to being in four-figure debts to payday loan companies or unable to escape their overdrafts, as well as sharing frankly his own struggles to escape ‘thousands of pounds’ of credit card debt.  

That artists are struggling to escape debt and sustain a decent living may seem like a small issue in the context of the wider and oppressive debt crisis that is facing the country at large. But it matters, because the arts are at serious risk of becoming the preserve of only those from affluent, middle class backgrounds. In fact, it already is.

The 2013 Great British Class Survey demonstrated that only ten per cent of actors came from a working-class background; the 2015 Panic! Survey—which  explored the career pathways of arts professionals—showed  that at least 76 per cent of arts workers have at least one parent in a middle-class job, and that nearly 90 per cent have worked for free at some point in their career.

Dave O’Brien, the lead researcher on the Panic! Survey, highlighted why the lack of socioeconomic diversity is a particular problem for the creative sectors in Guardian feature in which he concluded:

“People from working-class origins have issues making it into medicine, but medicine is not telling us stories about who we are. Medicine is not the thing we turn to to ask, ‘What’s my identity?’”

Culture not only reflects the world, but projects the world as it might be. If the voices that tell us stories or produce images within the arts establishment are solely those who are already advantaged by their social circumstances, then the implication is that they are the only perspectives that have value. What we privilege in our galleries and on our stages has the potential to reinforce the status quo or to change it.

It matters too because participation in the arts is empowering: you learn how to express yourself creatively, take ownership of your own story and gain the confidence to make yourself heard. These are all vital tools in the battle against systematic and endemic oppression, but right now they’re concentrated in a small number of hands.    

Clearly, there’s a huge amount the theatre sector can do to improve the financial lot of artists, such as offering better paid commissions and employment opportunities. It’s also reductive to pretend that the barriers to diversity are purely financial. A major rethink is required in terms of what kind of artwork is platformed—we can surely afford to lose a few Chekhov revivals.

Instead of moulding artists from underrepresented backgrounds to operate within established systems, the sector should be seeking ways to support them to work on their own terms and in their own contexts. This challenge is compounded by the Conservative government’s apparent determination to stigmatise arts subjects in education—as seen, for example, in ex-Secretary of State Nicky Morgan’s claim that school pupils have been ‘held back’ by studying arts subjects at school.  

However, the fear of debt is certainly one of the biggest stumbling blocks to entering a career in the arts. If going to drama school costs more than £27,000 in fees alone—leaving  you with a debt it will take decades to repay in an industry where you might well struggle to make even the minimum wage from your artistic output—why  would you take the risk unless you had a financial safety net underneath you?

We need wholesale social change that empowers people to make choices about their own futures, enabling them to pursue a creative education without encumbering themselves with debt that may be unsustainable. Finding ways to live affordably in the ways that we choose doesn’t just matter for the sake of improving access to the arts, it’s also vital for building a healthy and well-functioning society right across the board.

Artists are a tenacious, canny bunch, thank God, and they will continue to fight for this kind of society in spite of all the odds. In a socioeconomic system that can often seem as frightening and inescapable as a haunted house, their creativity and ingenuity are a beacon.

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here runs at Camden People’s Theatre from 10-28 October, 2017 at 7.15pm (not Mondays or Sundays). Find out more at www.cptheatre.co.uk.

About the author

Amber Massie-Blomfield is the Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre, London. She has written for titles including The Guardian, The Independent, The Stage and New Internationalist and her first book is due for publication in May 2018. She is a fellow of Birkbeck, University of London.

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