Untold losses

‘Untold Losses’ (8 minute reading)

History is what happened. Historians interpret – yesterday’s hero, recast as today’s pariah – but they can only work with what is known. Otherwise, they become novelists, or politicians. Historians date the origins of European theatre to Athens in the 5th century BCE and the plays of AeschylusSophocles and Euripides: performers and audiences have tended to agree with that interpretation. But just a fraction of those texts have survived: Sophocles wrote 120 plays, of which we have seven. A world that had known the 300 lost works of these playwrights might feel very different from this. 

Artists who die young become icons of unfulfilled promise: what might Christopher MarloweJane AustenHenri Gaudier-Brzeska or Jimi Hendrix have done with more time? But there are also unknown losses: all the people who were never able to create the art of which they were capable, because of poverty, social status, injustice and bad luck. Only a fool could look at the canon of Western art and believe that it actually represents the meritocracy its more conservative custodians claim. All artists are equal, but some artists are more equal than others. The canon, and the excellence it seems to represent, is the result of chance and social forces, and one of the most important aspects of the slow and uneven democratisation of recent decades has been the prising open of that citadel by artists it excluded for centuries. Remember, women had no place in Athenian theatre, where female characters were played by men: some historians think that even the audience was male. 

These thoughts were prompted by a sad tweet from Kate McGrath, director of Fuel:

Remembering the pride, excitement & anticipation I felt when team  @FuelTheatre  launched our 2020 programme 6 months ago. We‘re all working so hard right now to survive the present and build a new future. Just for a minute, I’m grieving what could have been.

Kate McGrath, Twitter, 19 June 2020

It was followed by the thread in which the company’s plans for 2020 were announced, including work by Heather AgyepongInua EllamsHemabharathy Palani and Hetain PatelJennifer Malarky and Lee MattinsonCommon Wealth, Bradford Modified Car Club and Speaker’s CornerAlan LaneKeisha Thompson and Börkur JonssonAi Weiwei and many, many more (the list could have gone on a long time). Recalling the work announced is like reading the menu of a closed restaurant: so much promise, all of it out of reach.

I don’t remember when I first heard the term ‘unproducing’, but it immediately resonated. The Fuel team have spent much of the past months doing just that: dismantling productions, tours and projects that have nowhere to go, and no one to see them. It’s heart-breaking. I’ve met the Fuel team every fortnight for the past couple of months, to facilitate a conversation about their work, hopes and concerns during the lockdown. As happens quite often, I was at the edge of my competences, not least in learning to hold a space on Zoom. It wasn’t an easy process for the team either, and I developed great respect for them as creative professionals, and as people navigating extraordinary and difficult times. 

There are more similarities between what Fuel do and what I do as a community artist than might at first sight appear. Our purpose is to enable artists to fulfil their potential: in Fuel’s case, the artists are professional, in mine, they’re mostly not. But we have a shared belief in art’s importance – to people, to society, to intellectual life and emotional wellbeing, to politics and justice. We also share a commitment to opening the doors of artistic citadels so that everyone can find their way in, and in the firm belief that democratisation of our cultural life will be an improvement, even if it involves a changing of the guards. None of us, I think, has ever thought that was easy, but the stillbirth of long cherished creations caused by lockdown has been an unexpected grief, acknowledged in our conversations. So much work has been lost in the past three months, so much care, love and creativity now searching for new forms. Like the lost plays of Sophocles, some of that work might never surface, even when theatres reopen (and, one day, they will). Even if there’s an opportunity to revive an idea, the artists may not feel able to breathe life back into something whose time has passed, with so much else in the new, uncertain landscape now forming.

The cultural sector has rightly given attention to the immediate and increasingly urgent needs of the freelance people: the actors, artists, musicians, writers, designers, directors and, yes, community artists, education workers and all the others without whom venues would be as empty as an ancient Greek theatre. Many of them, because of the unfair employment practices encouraged by a succession of governments, have found their mixed earnings prevent them from accessing the public funding made available to more secure workers. Fuel, with others, has been instrumental in supporting a Freelance Task Force intended to give artists and cultural workers paid time and connections into key conversations so their voices can be heard. It’s a vital step in protecting their livelihoods but, even in the fight for better conditions, we should not forget the work for which so many artists are willing to sacrifice their own security – the art outlined in Fuel’s lost programme, art that could and would have changed the people who experienced it, and made the world a better place, just as those 300 lost plays would have changed the world if they had survived.

It’s right to remember these unknown unknowns, and pause to mark their loss, even as we work to imagine what might fill the space they leave.