Jennie, Joan and the Figure of 8

“In any civilised community the arts and associated amenities, serious or comic, light or demanding, must occupy a central place. Their enjoyment should not be regarded as something remote from everyday life.” White Paper on the Arts 1965

The words above were published 50 years ago today, in the UK Government’s first, and only White Paper on the arts, led by then Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee.

There is still a battle to recognise the role that the arts can play in people’s lives. And there is troubling evidence that despite Lee’s eloquent call five decades ago, the arts are increasingly remote from most people’s everyday life.

Why is this important?

Last week, the latest research published by the Warwick Commission into Cultural Value provided solid and dismaying facts about who produces and consumes publicly subsidised arts in the UK. The wealthiest, better educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population forms the most culturally active, benefiting disproportionately from public subsidy.

The Commission’s report found that that “low engagement is more the effect of a mismatch between the public’s taste and the publicly funded cultural offer – posing a challenge of relevance as well as accessibility”.

Like Jennie Lee, many believe that public subsidy of the arts should enable the widest possible breadth of the population to discover and nurture their own creative talents. This is particularly true during a time when austerity measures are hitting the poorest, hardest.

Or to put it another way, access to and engagement with the arts is an issue of social justice.

What does this mean in the context of theatre?

It goes beyond artistic directors being concerned about their ‘core audiences’ and box office receipts. We have examples of elitism in theatre and a lack of diversity in both the production and consumption of theatre. It has been argued that this is a consequence of wider socio-economic inequalities and the policy context in which theatre is produced.

However, despite the obvious barriers that are created by the policy context, there is still much we can do now as theatre-makers to influence the diversity of what we create, how we create, where we create and who creates theatre with us.

Because of my background in community development, I am especially interested in the relationships that theatres have with their local communities. I observe very different attitudes, biases and assumptions that theatre companies have about how they engage (or don’t) with their local communities. By changing the nature of these relationships, theatres have the potential to disrupt some of the patterns of elitism and exclusion that pervade the sector today.

To put it bluntly: some theatre companies are much more effective than others at using what power they do have to tackle the elitism within the system.

Let me give a practical example that originates from the same era as Lee’s White Paper, from the towering figure of the post-war UK theatre scene, Joan Littlewood.


Through my involvement in the movement to realise Littlewood’s vision of a Fun Palace I came across the idea of the ‘figure of 8’ relationship between a theatre and its local communities. This is how Stella Duffy, one of the inspiring leaders of the Fun Palace movement, explained the approach to me:

“The theatre has to go out into the community, know the people, know its community, feed that back into the work they make, and then you change the work you make because of the people. And therefore the people want to come and see it, because you’re not putting it on for their good, you’re putting it on for them because it’s got them in it. Then that feeds the people because the people have seen something amazing and then it keeps doing this figure of 8.”

The key features of this approach that stand out are that it is ongoing and reciprocal.

By engaging in this way with their communities, theatres are not just having an impact on peoples’ lives, the communities are also having an impact on the theatres.

If a model like the ‘figure of 8’ was incorporated into how publicly subsidised theatre is made in this country, what kind of impact would it have on what and who we think theatre is for? Might a model of engagement like this be useful to help us create theatre that is both relevant and accessible to the majority of people who currently stay away?

Many of us in the arts are campaigning, in different ways, for policy change to realise Jennie Lee’s vision for the meaningful role that the arts can play in people’s lives. Ed Miliband has got in on the act this week. I agree with his emphasis on the importance of arts in education. I also firmly believe that we should not forget the current generation of adults who do not participate in the arts. We need an equal emphasis on arts in communities.

Today I am one of many calling for a fresh look at Jennie Lee’s White Paper on the arts, half a century after it was written.

But we should remember that the real prize is not just recognition of the value of arts in people’s lives, but a step-change in the way the arts are made with and for people. A policy context that supports practice with communities to be ongoing and reciprocal, that addresses social justice concerns of who produces and consumes art, alongside aesthetic concerns. As Alan Lane of Slung Low puts it:

 “The theatres belong to the people. They do. But it’s not instinctive to think so. We think the NHS belongs to us, the people. We think the BBC belongs to us. The protected forests of the nation are seen, predominately, to belong to us. But not the theatres. It doesn’t seem natural to think so. Making it natural, and widespread, to think that our civic theatres belong to us is the sort of revolution we need.”


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