Friday 10 April 2020

Is this about postponing "business as usual"?

“I think it’s the responsibility of an artistic director, or let’s say, the collective, which is the artistic institution, to say here’s the pull that I’m feeling in our community. But, after all, isn’t it our responsibility to have a sort of eloquence or articulation around that, that maybe the community itself feels but does not deliver as a particular statement of need? So, I think being sensitive to that, to me, is leadership, saying here’s what we feel is in the air and what we think is worthy of giving voice to.”

I’ve often quoted these words of Martha Lavey, a long-time director of Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, who passed away in 2017. These days, my mind goes even more often back to them, as they beautifully resume the purpose of the work of an artistic director or cultural organisation.

I thought about this when I saw a video made by Portuguese artists and technicians entitled “Postpone us but don’t cancel us now”. It occurred to me that this request, this view or suggestion considering the situation we´re experiencing did not make sense. Not if we see a purpose, an intention, behind the work of an artistic director or a cultural organisation; not if we perceive this work as a way of creating a relationship with the communities it aims to address, their aspirations, anxieties, doubts, as well as their pursuit of happiness.

I wrote on my facebook page:

“The video is very well done. But, thinking about the message conveyed, talking to colleagues, looking at our present and trying to imagine our future, the call for postponing raises, in my view, more and more questions. What we know today is not what we knew three weeks ago and it is not be what we will know in six, nine, twelve months. Who we are today is not who we were three weeks ago and is not who we will be in six, nine, twelve months. What makes sense today is not what made sense three weeks ago and is not what will make sense six, nine, twelve months from now... At this moment, it seems to me that we should assume the cancellations and pay the professionals what we have to pay. As for postponing… we’ll have to wait and see.”

Some colleagues expressed their agreement, others reminded us that there can’t be a “one-fits-all” solution. And there can’t indeed. The cultural sector is not one homogeneous world and each area has got its specificities. Actually, it seems that the Portuguese law regarding cancellations and postponements had so far had the area of music (concerts and festival) at its core. The video, though, made me specifically think about theatres and cultural centres with an artistic direction. A colleague with this kind of responsibilities criticised my post. Here’s a summary of his argument:

  • Postponing is fundamental in order to fulfil the agreement of co-producing and presenting a performance;
  • If projects are not postponed, artists cannot present their work and lose the contact with audience;
  • We managed to postpone our shows so that everything will be presented on stage;
  • Are you defending that artists should suffer damages although they had scheduled presentations?
  • This is the moment to decide next season’s programming. One cannot “wait” and risk condemning the next season, thus doubly harming the artists.

I read carefully these arguments, grateful to be given an insight into an artistic director’s concerns and priorities. Nevertheless, postponing made even less sense to me after this.

First of all, I don’t wish to seem insensitive towards the situation of the artists, much less cause them further harm or distress. That said, is the programming of a cultural organisation only about the artists? Or rather about a larger community, of which the artists, other culture professionals, as well as the people we call the “audience” form part? Will a commission or co-production agreed months ago, as a result of a specific intention, be relevant for this community when we are back? What does “be back” actually mean at this point? What form will it take? Is it realistic to believe that in a few months we will be celebrating a usual season opening? Is this about postponing “business as usual” or rather an opportunity to transform it?

There are many questions for which we have no answers at this point. Our reality keeps evolving, keeps changing. Perhaps, the only thing we might say we know for sure is that we will not have a “normal” season opening in September, not the one we had planned. The issues will be different, our psychology will be different, the spaces and formats will probably have to be different too. This will be a slow return to the normality we long for (of being together, of touching each other, of sharing the experience of a performance). At the same time, it is probably the moment to think about the “normality” we don’t wish to return to (check out the questionnaire Where to land after the pandemic?).

How shall we survive this? How can we adapt in order to survive? What will make sense? What do we wish for? What don’t we want to go back to? I believe that the answers to these questions will not come from the postponement of previously programmed shows, at least, not each and every one of them and not in the way they had been planned. It would make sense to look for them together with our communities, artists included. “Don’t stick to the plan, but stick to the person”, my friend and colleague Chiara Organtini said in our latest RESHAPE meeting.

In this process of re-considering our work and place in our community we will disagree. It is natural and it is necessary, we haven’t been through this before. But this is the way of refining and adjusting our thoughts and imagining our future together.

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