I’ve been making street theatre for 14 years, as likely to pop up beside Poundstretcher in Stockton as a herbacious border in Bracknell. I’m not a busker but mainly perform as part of festivals and community events, where the public can come and watch a series of programmed performances in their town centres for free.
Things have changed a bit in this time. The Arts Council has recognised outdoor performance as a valuable social tool – opening the enjoyment of art out to people who might not be regular art mongers; encouraging people from different backgrounds to share fun and inspiring experiences together; inviting people to view their shared public space in new and exciting ways; and to encourage active participation through carnival events and the like. Increased funding, especially in the lead up to London 2012 focused heavily on street arts and many regional and national theatre companies have started to get in on the act. Even the RSC has made the odd appearance at Latitude Festival.
However, the street arts sector faces a number of problems. Arts budget cut backs, especially at the local level, has resulted in the demise of many arts festivals, which has in turn had a massive impact on artists who depended on these events for their bread and butter. However, outdoor performers are specialists at adapting to circumstances – whether it’s the weather or the economic climate. Some are side-stepping into the world of museums and galleries which are looking to develop ways in which they engage with the public.
However, what’s perhaps more of a problem is the fact that the level of critical evaluation of this type of work has remained negligible throughout my career. Total Theatre Magazine does take an interest in the sector and Lynne Gardiner from the Guardian makes the odd appearance. But as you look out of the swing doors of the street arts saloon, they are solitary figures amongst the dust and tumbleweed. Not only does this mean that we, as artists suffer from a lack of feedback which could help us to develop more sophisticated work, but the situation also questions weather we are in fact taken seriously enough by the larger theatre making community, to warrant such attention.
Not all of us want to be accepted by ‘the establishment’. The street arts sector is extremely democratic in nature and includes a significant outsider element, who wish to remain firmly outside. And this is partly what makes it exciting. But some of us do wish to have a discourse. I am amongst those who are not embarrassed to be the bastard child of the theatre world, but do wish that mother would throw us a few more scraps.
Perhaps we should prod her a bit more vigorously?
I am proposing to set up a peer led review group for outdoor performance. Would anyone care to join me?