What theatre can learn from Glastonbury in the time of Brexit

We are in dark times. I don’t need to list the events of the last few months around the globe and in the UK. Theatre is what I love and know, and it’s what I always hope will help change the world but like so many things that we invest ourselves in, it often lets us down. I’ve been trying to work out why, and what could be different, and here are some thoughts.

On Friday morning I woke up, like about 180,000 others, in a muddy field after not enough sleep to find that Britain had voted to leave the European Union. I am going to make a demographic generalisation and suggest that if you are reading this you were also as shocked, upset and angry as I was. Facing three more days of Glastonbury Festival, how do you keep on partying when you realise that the opinions and values of opposing ideologies are factually becoming a majority and making irreversible, ill-informed change?

Like parts of our press, our friends and our social media sites, the Glastonbury Festival is a political bubble – overwhelmingly pro-Remain. It’s a haven for the values of freedom of expression, of creativity, peace, inclusion, ethical trading, environmental awareness, sustainability, and of doing things because they are fun and worthwhile and make people happy. And though obviously a multi-million pound business it is still resisting the extremes of capitalism.
Liveness and shared experience have for a long time been hugely more important factors in my interest in theatre and performance than narrative or traditional craft. I go to see a lot of both live theatre and music: I don’t go to the theatre because I want to see the best acting, and I don’t go to gigs because I want to hear an album performed exactly like it is on CD. The best gigs are when the band goes all out, turns up the volume, breaks it down, ramps up the fury, puts on a show, and when the audience is part of the experience. Everyone knows that if you want to be in the action for a gig, you go front and centre for the mosh-pit or the pre-teen fangirling and there’s the self-selecting system where you choose how close you want to be to the action and how ‘into’ the gig you’re going to get that night by where you stand. Standing is active, and it’s also half way to dancing or jumping and so far from sitting, that extra knee bend from being passive and individual to being part of something with everyone else. There is nowhere to sit down at a muddy Glastonbury.

We want to express ourselves and mark ourselves out, but we want to feel together and know that we aren’t alone, to know that other people think and feel like us. It’s sometimes only when everyone else is dancing and singing that we can dance and sing: doing it together makes us feel liberated and stronger, united as part of something greater than us, and we lose our inhibitions.

Anthropologist Victor Turner called this ‘communitas’, and I am going to quote from Wikipedia here as I am very far from being an anthropologist: an “unstructured state in which all members of a community are equal allowing them to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together.” ‘Liminality’ being the “quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals”. Theatre, music, clubbing all having ritualistic qualities.

I often feel united in an experience with an audience in the theatre, but sometimes that audience is just 50 or 200, maybe 600 people sat in the dark. Rarely in the UK do we present theatrical events that can rally enough numbers or take place in the right spaces to create the feeling of ‘communitas’ that we need at the moment to feel like we are not alone and we can make the change for a better country and world. It can only happen outdoors: public space has always been political, and now that it’s ever-increasingly becoming corporatized, it is even more so.

The infrastructure we have in this country that is making and presenting really exciting, contemporary, radical, politicised theatre and performance that I think has the power to inspire change are the smaller spaces, or perhaps a biennial festival in a larger space. It’s partly down to the economics of a ticket buying public but it responds to a culture that has prioritised a few hundred years of dull, intellectualised, conventional theatrical experiences and lost its political power and its audience numbers by doing so.

There is refuge on a dancefloor and there is anonymity in a crowd on a field, there is understanding in an audience. The atrocity in Orlando recently is made worse than simply the death toll because it took place in a safe space, the dancefloor of a club for the LGBTQ community. So many marginalised communities will tell you how dancefloors and streets are important creative and socio-cultural spaces. Partying becomes political because other artistic spaces have let us down. Unfortunately at the moment, it feels like the majority who believe in freedom, peace and a better future is newly becoming a marginalised, powerless group, but this doesn’t have to be the case.

The famous Shangri-La debauched late-night area at Glastonbury aims to “holds a mirror up to the masses, challenging people in politics and play” through a mixture of clubbing, bands, performance art, installations, visual art and simply offering unconventional experiences. It’s that combination of hedonism through art and music that at the moment feels especially pertinent to me, as our culture becomes increasingly sanitised. We’ve lost some important rare spaces that serve that grimy border: notably The Arches, Glasgow (RIP), The Shunt Lounge (RIP), Madame JoJos, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (home to Duckie, amongst other legendary queer artists and events), is currently under threat again (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/royal-vauxhall-tavern-sadiq-khan-c...) from developers, and at Cambridge Junction (where I work) clubs have been reduced for various reasons, though it’s good to see places like The Yard Theatre in Hackney starting up nights.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I want to experience theatre that you can’t walk by because the beat’s drawn you in and you want to be part of it. I want to be at theatre that that attracts numbers that make the authorities scared. I want to feel that I am part of the theatre; that it’s been made for us in the audience not for the people on stage, and that it’s welcoming as well as intellectually rigorous and formally experimental. We need to make the case for the arts and these things happening makes the case for themselves.

In my memory, all the biggest performative public art events that the UK have seen have been from French companies and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they have a significantly healthier audience base, societal value for the arts and funding system. Artichoke (www.artichoke.uk.com) brought Royal De Luxe’s The Sultan’s Elephant to London in 2006 and La Machine’s The Spider to Liverpool in 2008; Crying Out Loud (www.cryingoutloud.org) brought Le Studio de Cirque’s Place des Anges to London (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWz8lNMbLv4) in 2012 as part of Piccadilly Circus Circus (I was part of the producing team) and it’s coming back in July to Hull as part of the City of Culture celebrations (https://www.hull2017.co.uk/whatson/events/placedesanges/). Free tickets for the show in Hull first crashed the website and then when relaunched 10,000 tickets sold out in 51 minutes, showing there is real thirst for events like these. These events feel special not just because they are spectacular, but because they take place outside, claiming the streets, and fill them with people who despite their differences are feeling part of something amazing, united and freer in the process. We want and need to be there.

In times like this, despite the logistical and financial challenges, I hope we can go bigger, more public and better with our theatre and our events. I wish it wasn’t the case but in these deliberately and strategically divisive times, it feels like just being together is becoming radical.