Eulogy for IdeasTap, and An Artist’s Plea: stop being stupid now

Last year I was asked by the good people of IdeasTap to write a poem celebrating their having reached the milestone of 150,000 members. I could, they said, write whatever I wanted to, provided it was of broad appeal to those members. I decided to write about how hard it is to be an artist and to survive in this field, not in an ‘oh god everything’s terrible woe is me let’s drink ourselves to death’ kind of way, but in an inspiring ‘this is really difficult and often demoralising but it can also be one of the most rewarding and exciting things on earth now let’s drink ourselves to death’ kind of way.

It was called ‘Keep Running’ and hopefully served as a call-to-arms to every aspiring artist; an incentive to figuratively, and often literally, carry on running, regardless of the hurdles and hardships we come up against. How apt, how poignant, that seems today. In a few hours, IdeasTap will shut its welcoming doors forever. I feel a bit like the townsfolk of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would feel if Wonka locked his gates all over again, leaving Charlie and family destitute once more. What magic, what secrets, what delicious treats will be lost. How will the Buckets survive? And all the Oompa Loompas IdeasTap employs. Think of them.

I’ve spent the months since IdeasTap announced its imminent departure hoping that some organisation, the government, another charity, or even some deep-pocketed philanthropist (mark ii; IdeasTap was funded almost singlehandedly by Peter de Haan) would emerge from the woodwork and save the day. There was, mercifully, some light at the end of this desolate tunnel, in the form of a partnership with Hiive, brought about largely by the formidable reaction of IdeasTap’s members who, like me, were incredulous at the prospect of such an important charity closing down. However, the partnership with Hiive, whilst offering some solace, is but a silver lining to a great big shitty cloud of shit. The fact that IdeasTap was ever allowed to get to a position of publicly announcing its closure after around a year of trying to save itself behind close doors is itself nothing short of a travesty. Hiive should be commended, but it is carrying a wounded soldier away from the front line, tending to her fatal injuries and giving her a whisky and a song while she dies with dignity in a hospital bed rather than in the mud. The fact remains: the poor thing was still shot in the first place.

But enough of simply being angry/sad, I ought to explain why I’m angry/sad.

The IdeasTap '100,000 Member' Party. Allowing me to wear those trousers is the principal reason they're shutting down.

The IdeasTap ‘100,000 Member’ Party. Allowing me to wear those trousers is the principal reason they’re shutting down.

On a personal note, IdeasTap has afforded me numerous opportunities across the entire range of my creative practice: as an actor, it is through IdeasTap that I first came to work with the National Theatre on two rehearsed readings and – as a result – a fortnight-long NT Studio workshop of a new Sheik and Sater musical; as a writer, the IdeasTap gang were the first people ever to pay me for a poem (which prompted me to take my work a lot more seriously) and they’ve since booked me to give spoken-word performances (at a party to celebrate an earlier membership milestone) and commissioned ‘Keep Running’; as a theatre-maker, they’ve given me a substantial helping hand (more like helping arm) toward making my Edinburgh Fringe debut this summer with ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family’ through their IdeasTap Underbelly Award. This will be the last edition of the award, and what a bittersweet privilege it is to be part of that swansong season. The very fact that I was invited to perform at the party to celebrate 100,000 members and less than a year later commissioned to write a poem to celebrate 150,000 members is evidence of IdeasTap’s formidable popularity, importance, and indispensability. At that exponential rate, it would have hit a million members in the blink of an eye (and perhaps offered me another, much more lucrative commission. Damn.) Just as the tree had started to blossom, we’ve set fire to the tree.

And I am, I think, a fairly typical IdeasTap member; just one of – as I write now – around 200,000 people to enjoy seemingly boundless opportunities and a sense of real community in an often isolating industry. Browsing through its sadly-condemned website was like window shopping – grant upon bursary upon top-up funding upon publication submission window upon creative placement upon mentorship upon Q&A ad infinitum in a delicious many-layered cake of galvanising incentive with a dash of mixed metaphor – but instead of promoting only fantasy (how nice it would be to have a play performed at HighTide Festival, or be mentored by Andrew Scott, we would wistfully wonder) IdeasTap was offering a reality; it wasn’t just showing the next generation of artists the doors, it was opening them too.

It’s not only IdeasTap’s demise specifically about which I’m angry/sad, but because of what it says about the funding situation in the creative industries in general. About 6 weeks ago my Facebook and Twitter feeds were awash with statuses rightly incredulous about Douglas McPherson’s plea in the Telegraph to ‘stop all arts funding now’. Naturally I clicked the link, expecting – with a headline so obviously provocative and idiotic – a razor-sharp article brilliantly satirising anyone actually holding that point of view. But of course – O’ how naive! – I was wrong, and McPherson was genuinely and stridently calling for the cessation of all arts subsidy. In 20 years of reviewing theatre, he wrote, he had not seen a single good piece of work benefiting from such subsidy. Fair enough, but you’ve got to wonder what on earth McPherson was seeing in that time. Is he excluding from this list any show that began life in a theatre on the Arts Council’s National Portfolio and went on to transfer to the West End, Broadway and subsequently tour extensively, such as any of Royal Court’s or the National’s recent hits? They became enormously lucrative – commercially self-sufficient and then some – but they weren’t always; they benefited, at conception and in early development, from a nurturing environment healthily devoid of the pressures of instant success. Granted, the nature of capitalism is survival of the fittest based on demand. But all start-ups, regardless of the industry, tend to need a certain amount of financial protection and freedom to play, and to fail, before they succeed. Each new piece of theatre is a start-up, of sorts. But theatre, and art in general, is about much more than its economic value anyway (although incidentally the creative industries make this country A LOT of money). It’s about its cultural value (for which our Isles are justly famed). What’s the point of being alive, and having piles of money to roll around in, if we can’t examine what it is to be alive, and what that life means. Science and finance are how we live. Art, relationships, communication, and culture are why we live. Which is the dangerous position we find our beloved BBC in right now, being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until what’s left is the still-bright skin of the orange with no juice inside. A husk. Another ‘nice idea’ consigned to George Osborne’s alarmingly massive graveyard of good stuff we actually really need. The BBC’s twitter biography is a perfect distillation of why we need it, and why we need culture at all: ‘Our mission is to enrich your life and to inform, educate and entertain you, wherever you are.’ Yes please. They’re not always right, the Beeb, but generally they’re amazing, and my life as a member of the public, nevermind an artist, would be a lot poorer without them. This Guardian Editorial puts it well, and with more numbers.

I’ve strayed, I know, toward the sentimental. But it’s important to make this argument when talking about art. If you reduce it purely to its economic worth (which, as I’ve said, is still significant) you’ve missed the point. Perhaps McPherson does just have phenomenally bad taste, or perhaps he only sees 1 play a year; that’s not for me to speculate. But what I can say, with considerably more objectivity, is that his article is narrow-minded, short-sighted, poisonous, and – to quote someone on my social media – ‘quasi-fascistic’. Yes, some publicly subsidised theatre is bad. As is a lot of commercially produced theatre.  In both sectors, the cream rises to the top. But there has to be cream in the first place. I’m sorry that he didn’t enjoy ‘What Will Have Been’ at the Norwich Festival – and perhaps it was bad; I didn’t see it – but it seems something of an illogical leap to then write-off all arts funding. Maybe in this instance public funding was misplaced. But maybe, just maybe, Circa also thought that there was room for improvement in their show. Maybe they will go away and rework it, with or without public funding, and maybe, one day, they will return with this or another show and it will change ALL OF OUR LIVES. And you will see it, Douglas, and you will cry, and you will wet yourself (in a good way), and you will leave the tent and you will look at the sky and realise you’ve never properly seen it before, and you will feel compelled to tell those that you love the extent of your love for them, and you will sleep deeper and more peacefully than you have slept in years. Or maybe you’ll hate it all over again. But one can hope.

The most significant illogic in McPherson’s article, however, is this: the assumption that there can be a commercial sector without a publicly subsidised one. I’m going to be bold and suggest that ‘War Horse’ wasn’t the first piece of work that Handspring Puppet Company had ever done; I reckon they’d had a fair few grants before that point, to allow them to explore their work without needing to produce a War Horse after every single week-long research and development period. And I know that ‘Curious Incident…’ wasn’t Frantic Assembly’s first theatrical venture. It, too, is a National Portfolio company, and had been for many years before Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett joined the creative team of Marianne Elliot’s much-celebrated, and hugely profitable, National Theatre production. In fact, I’m going to be even bolder and suggest that there isn’t a single commercially self-sufficient production in the UK that doesn’t have in its ranks – across cast, creatives, and crew – people who have benefited directly or indirectly from arts funding at some point in their creative development, whether it’s a teenage Mark Rylance attending a youth theatre surviving thanks to some governmental financial assistance (I don’t know if he did), or a stage manager whose student loan allowed her to train at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (this definitely does happen). In fact, I’d be amazed if there’s anyone working in the theatre who hasn’t benefited in some way from some governmental support at some point in their career or pre-career. How elitist and self-destructive McPherson’s ‘plea’ is. Saying ‘we have commercially self-sufficient art so we don’t need to subsidise any more art’ is as ridiculous as saying ‘we have clever people so we don’t need to educate our children’.

Stopping ALL arts funding NOW would only lubricate our already worryingly quick slide toward elitism. Drama training, for example, is prohibitively expensive and so, as many have noted before me, we are in danger of having actors from only one small slice of society. We need actors from that societal slice, of course, but we need actors from the rest of the social spectrum too. If the government ceased its support of the arts entirely, arts subsidy wouldn’t itself cease but instead merely change to mean that only those whose parents can afford to bankroll their new theatre company are allowed to make work, only those whose parents can afford to put them through drama school are allowed to act, only those whose parents can afford to take them to the theatre regularly as a child are allowed to have a knowledge of and a passion for the industry. It’s not an issue of taste – not everyone has to want to work in theatre, just as not everyone should want to see it (one of the great audience engagement misconceptions of our time) – but everyone should be able to work in theatre, and able to see it.

McPherson’s article was published in suspiciously close proximity to the general election result, as if the Telegraph were preparing to respond to a landslide Labour victory with a warning cry, imploring a joyous Ed Miliband not to throw millions of pounds at lazy naval-gazing liberals who want to stand on stage and hit themselves in the face with sirloin steaks for 90 minutes while shouting ‘CAPITALISM!’ and ‘THE TORIES!’, as they clearly suspect has been happening for years. (That might actually make for quite a good piece of theatre, I haven’t tried it yet (I’ll apply for a grant)). But, in the wake of the already significant Arts Council cuts of 2011 and the prospect of more to come given the actual outcome of May’s poll, the article seems farcical. It isn’t easy to get a grant to make art. It’s hard. They don’t just throw money at worthless shit. They examine a company or individual’s funding record: how much have they been given in the past and how many times?, how many people do they reach as a result of this?, is there development in both their creative practice and their commercial potential? I don’t intend to rely on public subsidy for my entire career, but it has been instrumental in getting me this far. I’ve received, for example, funding from various organisations at various stages in the development of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family’, including money from the Arts Council, directly, in the form of a GftA, and indirectly through spoken-word organisation Apples & Snakes, which is on ACE’s National Portfolio. Let’s say Edinburgh goes well. Really well. I transfer the show to Soho where it runs for a sold-out month. I tour the show round the UK for a sold-out two months. It goes to the Adelaide Fringe (and sells out, obviously). It transfers to Broadway (you guessed it). It transfers to the moon (yep, still selling out, somehow), where it is live-streamed to everyone in the world. They love it. It is published as a book. I am a millionaire. Great (because then I’d set up another IdeasTap, or resurrect the original). But I can’t retrospectively give myself that money to develop the show, can I? No, Douglas, is the answer to that obviously rhetorical question. No.

At the IdeasTap ‘100,000 Member’ party I was asked whether I actually needed IdeasTap any more, as if my very being there as an invited, and paid, performer was evidence of my somehow rising above the opportunities IdeasTap could provide. But I had applied for the opportunity to perform at that party via a brief on their website. I needed IdeasTap. And now, years later and at a slightly more advance point in my career, I still need IdeasTap. Last month I submitted a poem to their Editor’s Brief, for which I was given £100, which went towards my rent for June. And that’s just me. If IdeasTap, or – worse – the ethos it embodied, is allowed to die then that’s immediately 200,000 people left adrift, community-less and opportunity-less (and, when it comes to its potential reach, it was still in its infancy). That’s 200,000 Curious Incidents, or Jerusalems, or War Horses, that the world will never see. It’s a generation, and then eventually an entire population, devoid of art, of culture, and of life.

So to all the wonderful staff of IdeasTap, keep running. To all its partner organisations, keep running. To all other supporters of the arts, publicly or privately, keep running. To the government, keep running (where running = funding). To Douglas McPherson, wake up. To everyone protesting against austerity today, keep running. To all IdeasTap’s members, keep running. And to all artists, keep running.