Arts management is the flavour of the season. You’re either doing it, or dishing it. There are strong feelings for and against it. Given that I am one of the facilitators for the India Theatre Forum’s strategic management programme for theatre (SMART), it wouldn’t take an Einstein to figure out where I stand. Took me a while to figure this out, though.
Like many theatre wallahs, I had contempt for the ‘management types’. So it was with some hesitation that I applied for the ATSA [ARThink South Asia] fellowship a few years ago. I had three large misgivings:
1. I regarded with suspicion all the terminology NGOs routinely use, some of which they share with corporates: target audience; SWOT analysis; timelines; vision and mission statements, etc. I didn’t want to be contaminated with all that.
2. I’d been in a theatre group, Jana Natya Manch, for more than two decades, and the group itself had existed for almost forty years. Surely, we were doing something right? I had also seen at close quarters companies like Naya Theatre and institutions like Ninasam. Neither Habib Tanvir nor Subanna were trained arts managers; but both were very good at it.
3. Most of the management types I had seen interacting with theatrewallahs had berated us on all the things we did wrong – we don’t have well articulated organizational structures, we were told, or we don’t spend enough money, or we don’t know how to write reports, or that we were too idealistic – and I was wary of that.
In the event, I needn’t have worried. I enjoyed being in ATSA, even if I got into scraps sometimes on issues of 'entrepreneurism' or 'business plans'. It was wonderful to connect with so many talented, passionate people who had dreams that they pursued with determination and creativity. With many of them, I’ve now built up lasting friendships, and I continue to learn from, and be inspired by, them.
Also, some pennies dropped.
I realized that while every experience has its particularities, it might still be a shared experience. We spend too much time reinventing the wheel. We shouldn’t. We should learn from each other.
Money is important, but you have a choice – you can either become its slave, or you can harness it to drive your artistic vision without swerving from your ideals. This was brought home to me by Sandeep Dwesar of the Barbican Centre, London. I found the way he articulated the relationship between financial management and creative goals immensely insightful, rigorous, and yet, in a strange way, liberating.
Not all learning is new. Many of the things we were being taught were things we had been doing in Janam, but didn’t know they had names – like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, it is useful to know you’ve been speaking in prose all this while!
All this helped me translate our experience in Janam into knowledge. Because knowledge can be codified, organised, compartmentalized and abstracted from, it is repeatable, replicable and teachable, and can help us evolve better practice. Without experience codified into knowledge, we’d never be able to separate a harebrained scheme from a shoddily executed one.
Then there’s exposure. ATSA sent us on a secondment to Germany. While it taught me nothing (because the German theatre scene is so completely different from – though not always better than – the Indian), what I saw helped open my mind to a range of possibilities. Sometimes, all you need is to see that things can be different.
Around the same time, Jana Natya Manch set up its own space, Studio Safdar, in Delhi. The arts management training helped me figure out what larger lessons we could draw from the intensive, three-year period during which we went from dream to conceptualization to fund raising to actualizing. We learnt a lot, of course, but perhaps the biggest learning is contained in this set of apparently self-contradictory statements:
Without idealism, you are not an artist. With idealism alone, you will find it awfully hard to remain an artist.
Idealism is a very useful thing. Artists approach things with passion and a commitment to make a change, not with spreadsheets and business plans. It helps to not have a good sense of the enormity of your goal. Sometimes, it is good to be fired by an impractical, illogical, seemingly unattainable dream.
And then, the opposite: Impractical and illogical dreams will remain unattainable unless, at an early-enough stage, you translate them into concrete, quantifiable, attainable goals.
What about the misgivings I began with, then? Here’s what I feel about them now.
1. Terminology is important, but not sacrosanct. If terms hamper your work, chuck them out of the window. As an artist, I am loath to do a SWOT analysis – I’m ok analyzing Strengths and Weaknesses, but I don’t want to see things in terms of Opportunities or Threats. That’s too cut throat and corporate for me. I know how to do a SWOT analysis; I just choose not to. And am none the worse for it.
2. Theatre people tend to be, on the whole, pretty good managers. There’s an enormous amount of fantastic learning to be had from figuring out what long-lasting theatre groups and organisations have done, and how they’ve done it. To bring our experience and learnings into theatre management thinking is one of the things we’ve set ourselves to do through SMART.
3. As artists, there are values that drive our creative work. When confronted by corporate management types, we sometimes think our artistic values are incompatible with being 'successful'. Too much time in arts management training is spent on learning skills, and too little on learning how to articulate our values and to figuring out how they will drive our management thinking. This too is something we want to emphasize in SMART.
Our entire context of doing theatre has changed so much in the last decade or two. There are more venues to perform in. Theatre artists are no longer hung up about performing only on proscenium stages. There are several small and medium artist-owned and -administered spaces. The number of festivals has gone up. Many more young people are looking to make theatre a career, without necessarily turning to Bollywood or TV serials to earn a living. A small number of young and committed theatre persons are looking to become professional arts managers, and these numbers are sure to go up. The whole opening up of the online space has created new opportunities to reach new audiences, as well as new ways of collaborating with other artists. This list can go on and on.
The point is there are new challenges, and there are new possibilities. As theatrepersons, we have to figure out where we stand. Or walk. Or run.