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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Out in the cold
Animated, Winter 2001. Is Britain the poor relation in Europe in terms of international programming? Niki Pollard talks to Rose Fenton, festival director of LIFT, London International Festival of Theatre
Few International performances were coming to London when Lucy Neal and I started the LIFT festival in 198I. On the whole, British theatre was preoccupied with text, directors and blocking, but we had been inspired by our experiences of more physical, multidisciplinary performance at a student drama festival in Portugal. We mooted the idea of having a festival in Britain of performance from around the world. On asking how to organise something like this, we were amazed by many of the reactions. 'Foreign theatre', people would say, 'isn't British theatre the best in the world?' Or, 'it's going to be in a foreign language - we're not going to understand'. A few with a more international vision of performance, supported us and, despite the doom and gloom, the festival was a success. Clearly, there existed an appetite and an excitement for an international festival within the British theatre scene.

As LIFT evolved, programming these international companies made us question what theatre is, where it call be performed, how it can happen and who can be involved. We found that certain British artists, who felt more of an affinity with the international artists than they did with their British peers, were doing exactly that in their work, although they were little regarded in this country. The press began to treat artists such as Welfare State International, Stationhouse Opera and Bobby Baker seriously when they were presented with them within the frame and reputation of an international festival.

LIFT was of the 'independent', second generation of international festivals in Britain, following on from the large 'official' festivals established after the war, looking to the so-called alternative voice in non-conventional spaces. The festival brought perspectives on the world to London but also brought to Londoners new perspectives on their city. LIFT became as much an exploration of the metropolis as it did of the world since audiences, travelling to performances discovered unexpected aspects of London which gave new meaning to their urban experiences. For example, presenting the Hanoi Water Puppets of Vietnam in the gardens of the Maritime Museum in Greenwich in 1983 appeared to them as an 'imposing colonial edifice for the local Vietnamese' community which was one of the largest at that time in Britain. Animateurs, Emergency Exit Art, had worked on puppetry and story-telling with Greenwich primary schools to create Sang Song - 'crossing the water' - which told of the community's journey to London, reflecting on how cultures transform themselves as they cross continents. The performance by the Hanoi Water Puppets was no longer an exotic 'other', but something that played a part in the development of the city.

Now, however, it has become impossible to continue the festival. London's programming has internationalised and so the role of the festival, to introduce the unknown and the international, no longer has the same force. The festival format gave us a frame, but that frame has been devalued by a festivalisation of culture. Whereas before people would approach LIFT with huge excitement, prepared to try the unfamiliar, now they gravitate towards companies with established reputations. With so much choice year round, audiences will not take the risks that they used to.

We need to hold onto this question about what theatre can be and its place in society today, instead of being just a festival that has to tick so many boxes - large-scale, London-wide, educational provision - and one that is increasingly restricted by a four week biennial slot. Boldly, we want to say to audiences and artists, 'come in and be part of the asking of this question'. We would like the audience to be creative, bringing their experience and imagination to bear, not passively sitting back. In opposition to the consumer attitude of 'didn't like it, not going back', we want to acknowledge the social experience, 'didn't understand that, but it was interesting because of that conversation I had before.' Pursuing this enquiry through year-round programming is, we believe, the only way to be uncompromising, to get people to understand the impetus behind the work and engage where possible in order to create a more open, generous attitude to contemporary performance.

Today, there is a huge wealth of ideas about the way that international work is presented in terms of international/British artist collaborations, framing work, new forms and multidisciplinary practice. The problem is that funding is tied up with conventional structures and in buildings in which the work that is presented is increasingly irrelevant to most younger audiences today. The Arts Council of England report on where theatre is going, The Next Stage (1) acknowledges the need for creative risk, attitudinal change and 'dynamic, bold, exciting, relevant work'. How do they do this? Certainly not by pouring more money into established theatrical institutions up and down the country. Conventional plays should not be performed to the exclusion of another set of performances with new forms and cultural impetuses reflecting the diversity of theatre-making and performance in this country.

The key to cracking this problem is in opening up routes of support for contemporary British and international work, since neither has ever had a firm place within the British funding system. When we first started LIFT, the Arts Council of Great Britain would not support us to spend British taxpayers' money on work from overseas whilst British artists did not have enough money. We were lucky in finding a champion in Ken Livingstone at the Greater London Council who embraced the notion of international theatre in a world city. Other sources at that time included the Foreign Office and Visiting Arts but these tiny pockets of funding were, and continue to be, linked with political imperatives of art as cultural diplomacy. Fine if you were programming from an unstable part of the developing worlds, less so if you were talking of North America or Europe.

Today, producers still struggle with short-term, piece-meal funding, with which it is impossible to build a programme confidently. In this situation, you are inhibited from taking risks. I became very despondent this summer at the Avignon Festival, as did Val Bourne of Dance Umbrella at a meeting in Italy called by Roma Europa.

Although we in Britain have initiated many extraordinary schemes for international exchange in which our European partners play a significant role, we are at the stage where we cannot contribute financially. We were told that we were not welcome at the table because we did not come with any money.

Brian McMaster of the Edinburgh Festival has said that British presenters have run out of clever solutions to fund and resource the presentation of international work and collaboration with our European partners. But it is not simply a question of the international. So many of these international artists are working across disciplines in non-conventional spaces that how to present this work becomes inextricably linked with the question of where arts funding in this country goes. The existing structures are not conducive to developing a bold vision for performance in the 21st century. The challenge for the funding structures is to seize the nettle and make some hard decisions that will inevitably be unpopular with some sections of the theatre community. Should innovative producers be funded as much as buildings? I do not have the answers but there is a groundswell of feeling that something has to give; that the structure has to be opened up.

Funding for the arts in this country is never going to be sufficient, but more resources need to be freed up for contemporary forms. Britain spends less on the arts than many other countries in Europe. The French government, for example, invests around 60 per cent more tax-raised funds to the revenue operations of arts institutions than does the British government, and funds distributed by local government are four times that distributed by their British counterparts (2). At De Singel in Antwerp, which is a kind of South Bank Centre, the dance and theatre programme starts off secure in the possession of around £750,000 annually to commission and present work. The programming budget for the LIFT festival is £800,000 biennially, but we start off with less than a third in place. The rest is raised through trusts, foundations and sponsorship in the face of the fact that innovative, international, provocative and unpalatable work lacks 'the Mozart factor'. That is to say, such work is not a first choice for potential sponsors who prefer to back the training and education programmes, instead of the art. In 1997, we could raise money for Saburo Teshigawara's workshops with young London dancers but not for his work. In the end, Issey Miyake, for whom he does the Paris fashion show choreography helped him as an artist by offering £25,000 in sponsorship. In other words, artists were raising money themselves to come to LIFT.

In France, programmers set out with around 75 per cent secure income, and so can plan with confidence and put down commissioning money assured that they will be able to present the work and fulfil their responsibilities by investing in a theatre and dance for tomorrow, In Britain, we are lucky if we have 25 to 35 per cent at the start. The result can be auto-censorship; we decide not to commission on the grounds that we will not be able to raise funds to present the work. Any sense of adventure is stifled and people in the sector feel constantly beleaguered.

Conversely by having all the money in your pocket from the start, you can stay within your world too much. At LIFT we have found that all the conversations involved in bringing in other resources means that another perspective on the work develops and different groups of people are engaged. For example, in bartering our way to getting a crane from a construction company, the company gets involved with creating the performance, which then reaches a new set of audiences. That exciting diversity of factors and audiences can be integral to the creation of the work. However, there has to be a balance: at the moment, it is tipped inhibitively far.

This government has successfully negotiated in extra £25 million for theatre over the next few years. My plea is, acknowledge what theatre is now, what it can be. Do not play safe, Open up to the next generation of artists and creative producers - then you will have something quite extraordinary to inspire and engage the next generation of audiences.

Contact LIFT on +44 (0)20 7490 3964

Niki Pollard died in November 2010 following her courageous years of living with breast cancer. As a testimony to her great spirit and love of dance Niki was still dancing with her friends the week before she died.

1 The Next Stage -a framework for an emerging national policy for theatre in England, Arts Council of England, May 2000
2 Devlin, Graham, Le Breton, Jean Marie and Hoyle, Sue, Committing to Culture, Arts Funding in Britain and France for the Franco-British Council, 2000.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001