It has become common these days to speak of a cultural ecology. It’s a good metaphor, which accurately represents the complex reality of human artistic activity. In a networked age, it neatly allows the big fish to place themselves alongside the smaller ones: no longer ivory towers, just bigger fish.
It also allows those parts of the arts world that depend on taxpayer subsidy—repertory theatres, orchestras, public galleries and so on—to argue that their work is intricately bound up with a profit-making commercial sector. The actors trained and nurtured in public theatres, so the argument goes, become the bankable stars of the West End and Pinewood. And, as arguments go, it’s not a bad one.
But, like most arguments about merit and the distribution of resources, it’s open to manipulation. Crucially, what are the boundaries of the eco-system that is ‘the cultural ecology’, or even ‘theatre’? There is an understandable temptation to define it so that whoever is doing the defining ends up being the biggest fish in the pond: we don’t stop thinking we’re the centre of the universe when we leave primary school.
So a cultural eco-system, such as theatre, is often conceived around its publicly-funded (‘professional’) element. The well-fattened fish—if also well-disposed—will argue for the small fry who feed them (or at least don’t compete with them for food) on the grounds that they are part of a creative landscape, or some such. They’ll also notice those fish who feed on ticket sales and angel investors, because they’re attractive and they aren’t after the same titbits.
But vast parts of the actual theatre ecology —such as schools and amateurs and television—are ignored, although between them they play the larger part in most people’s experience of and engagement with theatre, acting and performed narrative.
Dividing the social eco-system into neat, self-contained ‘ecologies’ is misleading and often self-serving. No actor is only an actor. They have been, are and will be also a schoolchild, a sister, a parent, a taxpayer, a Green party member, a disabled person, a baseball fan, a person with dementia—and any other of the numberless roles and identities we take throughout our lives.
Unless we understand the theatre ecology, or the arts world, or the cultural sector as an integral part of the fabric of human existence—neither more nor less valuable than any other—we live in the fantasy world of big fish in small ponds. We delude ourselves not only about our importance, but about our autonomy and independence as well. Like Pastor Niemöller and John Donne we wonder in passing who’s being eaten and don’t wait for an answer.
And so the pikes swim and mate and feed, priding themselves on their importance, oblivious to lakes and seas beyond their small domain—and also to the angler settling down by the bank to make his first cast.
They may yet be stuffed.