Even as you read this, the social networks (the real ones, not FaceBook) are abuzz with announcements of SMART, the course for Strategic Management in the Art of Theatre, conceptualized and implemented by the India Theatre Forum (ITF) and managed by Junoon and the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). The programme seeks to address some of the significant gaps evident in the contemporary theatre arts practice and focus on capacity building/competencies/training for theatre practitioners. Now if you viewed all the earlier terms as fundamentally the same thing, then reading this article is going to be redundant. A formal programme like this is quite useful, and hence anyone committed to a theatre practice will find that it will serve as a stepping-stone to greater things for your respective theatre companies.
However many theatre practitioners will find that the three terms are quite different and carry with them certain assumptions and baggage, the unpacking of which, leads to wildly divergent perspectives on what is useful knowledge. Significant differences in value systems between participants and facilitators will result in a fundamental mismatch of expectations, and what starts off as a problem of language, quickly gravitates towards an ideological impasse. A programme’s emphasis on adopting certain lingo and practices, takes on a fairly oppressive atmosphere and one is suddenly confronted with the social science truism that “no understanding or knowledge is value neutral”. Several participants of the ArtThink South Asia Fellowship Programme were confronted with this predicament, and while schmoozing, hobnobbing and networking opportunities are always important this “top-down intervention” approach to arts management merits closer attention.
This schism is also why I intend to avoid any celebratory or marketing-suffused language in this article, in favour of a tone that I hope is more critical. As theatre people, the endless narrative of self-promotion and social-buzz we need to create on a daily basis to market our shows, workshops and festivals, often makes us forget the larger picture. Yes, this is a plug for SMART, but this is also a foray in the direction of that rarefied pursuit – big picture thinking.
I’m going to pepper this article with some findings from a survey conducted by ITF in 2013. This targeted e-mail survey was conducted as a prelude to SMART and offers a fairly penetrating view into a section of the theatre landscape, with 68 responses from individuals who are part of various groups from around the country. Of course the standard caveats apply, this survey is not remotely representative of the entire country and I am market-biased and arguing from a young urban-theatre practitioners viewpoint. There is an over-representation of urban theatre groups. It does not rely on personal interviews. The numbers can lie and so on…
Perhaps the most unsurprising fact is that an overwhelming 84% of the respondents felt that the philosophy of “why we do what we do” was the most important core value that underpinned their work. So why do we do what we do? For the love of theatre, of course. This argument is perhaps the bedrock that allows theatre people to undergo all the ordeals that we subject ourselves to. In addition 68% of the respondents felt that for their group sustainability, exposure to the theatre of other groups was very important and 66% felt that inviting more people into the theatre was as important. Clearly these three indicators of convergence are testimony to the “missionary zeal” of the theatre community.
Given that there is such a clear unifying commitment to philosophical beliefs, there seems to be a strong incentive to co-operate as a community, create shared resources and multiply collective opportunities. Perhaps a cynical view is that the 68% felt that they had to keep up with their competitors and that the 66% were really just interested in building up collections at the box! I don’t think I subscribe to that view, but I do believe that despite many points of convergence, there is not nearly enough cooperation within the larger theatre community.
Anyone who has ever sat in a meeting with an advertising or marketing executive and tried to negotiate with him/her on eyeballs and footfalls for theatre will find the “love of theatre” argument will only go so far outside the theatre community. As Sudhanva Desphande put it in a recent article “Without idealism, you are not an artist. With idealism alone, you will find it awfully hard to remain an artist.”
So what’s getting in the way? Is it aesthetic considerations? A difference in political viewpoints and philosophies? Is it anti-intellectualism or personal vendettas? Are we content to play smaller games of rivalry as we compete for scare resources? Are we in disagreement about where we fit into the large social context? Or are we conditioned to be suspicious of impersonal forms of organisation? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but the last point is perhaps the most relevant with regards to an initiative like SMART.
Practically all theatre people have group affiliations. Impersonal practices like arts “management”, with an emphasis on management, create possibilities for us to co-operate as a community outside of two major sticking points – aesthetic differences and group affiliations. If a truly professional theatre has to emerge from the vibrant amateur scene, or if we are to even begin to think about the professional theatre that we would like to create in India, then arts management and the associated pedagogy would be the place to start. This requires us to focus on professionalisation at a level more than just “doing it full-time”, although that is definitely a good start. It is also a sharp reminder that should we remain in our current state of institutional fiefdoms and insular camps, we must remain content to bumble along in amateurish enthusiasm complaining about lack of arts funding, opportunities and rehearsal spaces. Arts management is certainly not the panacea for all our woes, but it is a good place to start tackling them. Finally, impersonal organisation does not mean without people! It means adopting methods that consider collective benefits, where we temporarily “bracket” our pursuits for glory and go beyond personality-centric approaches.
It is great relief that SMART is a ground-up and not a top-down intervention. There are many things to learn from the European and North American theatre cultures, but you would find it pretty difficult to transplant the West End into an Indian metro, provided of course you thought that was even a good idea in the first place. Indian theatre-making has a unique set of challenges, not the least of which is tepid state support and paucity of infrastructure. Ground-up approaches offer the best kind of help, self-help. This form of help is relatively slower, as it necessitates that a new “language” of management be evolved that is responsive to local conditions. How does this language evolve? Do the course facilitators at SMART bank on their grey-hair for this?
I think it will be the conversation between facilitators and participants that creates it. Best practices plucked from the latest MBA marketing curriculum won’t cut it. In fact the very idea of best practices necessitates that one looks at what has consistently managed to yield desirable results in a given context. This also requires a balance of theoretical and practical elements required of any professional training. Of course this is just round-one and this is a process that will need to be refined over the years. At the outset though, we must reconcile with the fact that while theatre is undoubtedly an art, theatre management requires a paradigm shift out and away from radical individualism.
At a recent seminar in Bengaluru, I was amused to find myself in a debate about the merits of “text-based” approaches versus “devised” theatre approaches. This sort of hard dichotomy really exists only in seminar discussions, but I began to make some claims to defend text-based approaches saying that one or two generations down, no one will have anything to say about devised approaches since there would be no texts for anyone to study! At the time it was a minor point, but by the end of the seminar it became about a much larger issue – one of documentation. One of the other results of the survey that I found noteworthy was that 68% of the respondents felt that among their communication strategies, documentation was the most important element. The other major aspects of communication deemed very important, were connecting with society (64%) and writing critically about theatre (62%).
It is obvious that we all share similar constraints, lack of quality rehearsal and storage spaces (74%), finding the right people to work in our companies (63%), creating revenue generation (66%) and developing and maintaining long and short term financial sustainability, both in terms of fundraising (68%) and financial management (66%). In fact going through the survey results, was like a replay of many of the seminars and meetings I’ve attended where the theatre community has gathered to discuss something, complained about infrastructure and then proceeded to relentlessly attack each others work.
Perhaps what I am arguing for here is an attitudinal shift away from the traditional approach of bemoaning lack while focussing on creative differences, towards a more pragmatic solution to many of our obvious shared obstacles. These percentages require no great quantitative leap of understanding. They simply and clearly show we all have common obstacles, and surprise-surprise, we actually agree on what those things are. By virtue of our connection with the arts, we are all engaged and concerned with culture and this should really be a point of focus, instead of a point of divergence.
If you are a young or youngish theatre group, it is really important to understand the larger context in which you operate, as you learn the managerial skill sets most typically articulated by the stereotype of excel sheets and power point presentations. If you are an elderly theatre troupe, or perhaps a not-so-young one, please stay engaged with the conversation that starts at SMART! You are soon going to have some bright youngsters suggesting and implementing organisational changes!
We can engage with arts management as a space where we create a set of best practices, or we can knock it about as a buzz-word for the latest-greatest- opportunity. I think the former is eminently preferable to the latter!