“A picture is worth a thousand words” is an old, careworn cliché but it still holds true….to an extent.
What is undoubtedly true is that the human brain processes visual images thousands of times faster than text. A well-chosen, striking image placed in the appropriate context can be very powerful, thought-provoking and, importantly, memorable, linking the image with the content.
Image by Michael Heiss via Openverse
What is also true is that, while PowerPoint rules in higher education, its use is often limited to that of a glorified OHP i.e. the projection of (sometimes lots of) words on a screen. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is a very real phenomena.
Image by Beate via Openverse
Searching for help
If you search online for a subject such as “How to improve your PowerPoint presentations” you will find dozens, if not hundreds, of ‘How to’ guides. The various recommendations tend to coalesce around a few key recommendations.
Image by gruntzooki via Openverse
These recommendations include:
Don’t simply read out or repeat what is on the screen
Make diagrams and charts interesting but not self-explanatory
Strike a good balance between the verbal, the written and the visual
Keep the number of words or bullet points (or images) on screen to a minimum
Good visuals alongside a clear explanation can help to communicate complex ideas
Turn bullet points into visuals 👇
Keep It Simple
Somewhere around the middle of the last century someone in the US military coined the phrase “Keep It Simple, Stupid” or KISS for short. The idea behind it is that most things work best if they’re kept simple. Unnecessary complexity gets in the way of purpose and should be avoided. It’s probably no accident that the term has a military provenance as, in that environment, it’s incredibly important to send and process often complex information quickly and without ambiguity.
The KISS principle (or Keep It Short and Simple or Keep it Simple and Straightforward for those who don’t like the ‘stupid’ part) has since been adopted by anyone who needs to relay information – no matter how complex – effectively, efficiently and, above all, memorably.
Image by iNKMan_ via Openverse
Students are visually discerning and visually sophisticated. So it’s important to bear in mind that anything projected onto a screen becomes a visual medium, and the principles of good visual design apply as much to a PowerPoint presentation as to anything else one sees on screen.
These two slides – good design is aesthetic and good design is minimal – from my presentation on the Ten Principles of Good Design are examples, I hope, of keeping it simple as well as conveying some key points which are enhanced by the verbal explication that accompanies the slides.
Where to look
So where can we find images that are guaranteed free-to-use?
There are, thankfully, a number of websites that provide access to millions of images that are free to use, also known as CC0 (Creative Commons Zero). These include: Creative Commons, finda.photo, Freerange, Gratisography, Images of Empowerment, Pexels, Pikwizard, Pixabay, Stocksnap, Unsplash.
Image by ZEISS Microscopy via Openverse
Particularly useful is the image search engine Openverse https://search.openverse.engineering/ It enables you to search through over 600 million free-to-use images most of which simply request that you credit the creator. It also offer you links to other search engines if you still can’t find the right image.
Screen grab image by Paul Kleiman
“I haven’t got the time to search for and insert nice images or to edit my presentations to make them visually interesting”
Everyone is under often immense pressure, and the reluctance to engage in yet another time-consuming activity such as searching for good images to use in presentations is entirely understandable. But if it means that the important and valuable information you want to communicate really ‘sticks’, then it is probably time well spent….and the more you do it, the easier and quicker it gets.
Image by James via Openverse
I would suggest gradually building up your own ‘library’ of images which is located in a folder on your desktop or tablet. You know your subject, so when you come across an image that you think might be useful, stick it in the folder. BUT….(here speaks the voice of experience!) remember to make a note of where/how you found it, who created it and how they want to be credited. That will save you a great deal of time and frustration when you actually use the image.
You can, of course, create your own images! Our homes and surroundings provide an infinite number of photographic possibilities and most mobile phones have excellent cameras and there are many free photo editing apps. The main advice for presentation images tends to focus on close-ups and dramatic or striking images.
This photo was taken on a cycle ride that took me under a pylon. I happened to stop and look straight up and was immediately struck by what I saw. Using simple editing tools I changed it to high contrast black and white.
Image (c) Paul Kleiman
Good visual design and inclusivity
Image by cogdogblog via Openverse
Is creating a visually striking, memorable presentation compatible with the diverse requirement for inclusivity? The answer is a definite ‘Yes’!
A number of those requirements e.g. number of bullet points, font size etc. are about keeping it simple. The technology also provides the ability to read slide captions and descriptions (if you put them in), notes pages can be printed and published beforehand, audio can be recorded over the slides, QR codes can be used to link to the presentation and other material.
Good design takes time and effort. Making good design inclusive should be part of that time and effort.
One of the concerns in regard to using images is about infringing copyright, and it is worth bearing in mind that most images that you come across on the internet (or in books) are copyright protected. None of us and, particularly, our institutions, want to break the law by using copyrighted material we aren’t allowed to reproduce.
Image by deBurca via Openverse
There are, however, the ‘Fair Use’ provisions* that allow copyright works to be used for educational purposes. These include:
Showing copyright works in an educational establishment for educational purposes. However, it only applies if the audience is limited to teachers, students and others directly connected with the activities of the establishment. So, a lecture to students in a lecture theatre is covered by fair use, but a conference presentation in a conference venue isn’t. Whether uploading the presentation to a secure VLE is permittted is a moot point. Uploading to a publicly accessible website is not permitted.
The copying of works in any medium as long as the use is solely to illustrate a point, it is not done for commercial purposes, it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement, and the use is fair dealing. This means minor uses, such as displaying a few lines of poetry on an interactive whiteboard, are permitted, but uses which would undermine sales of teaching materials are not allowed.
While you may use copyrighted images in a perfectly legal way under the ‘Fair Use’ provisions, difficulties can arise if, for example, a student videos or takes photos of your presentation and those copyrighted images and then posts them on social media or in a blog. So it’s far better to play it safe and, wherever possible, use images that you cab be sure are genuinely free-to-use.
So, is a picture worth a thousand words? Here’s a test: if you’ve got as far as here, close your eyes and think about the content of this blog and the various sections. Do the images help you to recall the content?
As a Jewish family, we don’t really do Christmas. Yes, we’ll gather together, have a big meal, play board games, and watch far too much television. But that’s because it’s a holiday, everything is closed, and there’s not much else to do. Coming up to Christmas that year we’d just had some building work done, and there was still loads of cleaning up, making good, re-decorating to do. So it was looking like a DIY Christmas and new year.
As it happens, the builders had found an old, crumpled newspaper stuffed into the gap between the window and the wall our bedroom. When they first found it, it reminded me of a dead bird.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve I decided to have a go at ‘uncrumpling’ it using our steam iron. It turned out to be the Lancashire Post from 30th September 1943. The paper was very fragile – I suspect they didn’t use the best quality newspaper during the war years – and I became absorbed in the task of slowly but surely flattening the paper one careful centimetre at a time. I wasn’t even aware that the radio was burbling quietly away on the other side of the room.
As each piece revealed its flattened secrets, I read about the Fifth Army’s losses in North Africa, the Russian advances along the Dneiper, a successful bombing raid over Germany (only eight missing in action). I also read about a local woman fined for fiddling ration books, and a Polish aircraft man convicted of drunk driving.
There was also a small item about how the German U-boats had failed to sink a single ship in the previous month. 70 years later, on Christmas Eve, the newspapers and television were full of the news about the Royal pardon given to Alan Turing, the man who had ‘cracked’ the German Enigma code used by the U-boats and, by doing so, had in no doubt saved thousands of lives and perhaps helped to end the war. But Turing was gay at a time when it was illegal, and had been found guilty of gross indecency, jailed, chemically castrated, and forbidden to undertake any work linked to national security. He was and should have been hailed as a national hero. Instead, he committed suicide two years later in 1954, and full recognition has only come very recently.
Those U-boat failures, reported on the front page of that 1943 Lancashire Post, were a direct result of the work Turing had undertaken at Bletchley Park.
Absorbed in the task and on this fascinating window on history, I suddenly became aware of a beautiful, solo treble voice filling the room, singing “Once in Royal David’s City….”. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and the start of that wonderful, traditional Christmas Eve ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. And as that pure, high voice soared…..I burst into uncontrollable sobs. A veritable tsunami of grief poured over, into and through me: disturbing and disruptive in its power and intensity.
It took me a while to realise what it was.
When my mother died the year before, I cried no more than a couple of times, and that was around the time when it all happened and usually in response to an individual’s kindness and sympathy. But nothing like this.
Though, obviously, Jewish and very proud of her traditions, my mother also had a deep love for many things that were quintessentially English. Among them she had a particularly high regard for and interest in the great cathedrals and churches of England. After she passed away I discovered, amidst the thousands of documents she left, a neatly stacked pile of guides to virtually all the English cathedrals and some other churches, all neatly annotated with her distinctive handwriting. I always smile when I see those guides as my father did not approve of my mother’s interest in Christianity, and I know he would not step inside a church. So I have a very clear picture of my mother wandering around inside with her guide, no doubt quizzing whoever she could find about the history of the building and making notes, while my father sat patiently on a nearby bench doing his Times crossword.
Just before three o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas eve, without fail, and though Jews – on the whole – don’t do Christmas, my mother would sit herself in her favourite chair, turn on the radio, quite loudly, and wait until that beautiful, soaring, solo treble voice filled the room, singing the first verse of the carol, followed by the choir and then the congregation. Earlier in the day she would have called me to remind me NOT to call her between 3pm and 5pm.
As that deep pang of grief and my sobbing subsided, and I was able to collect my thoughts, I wondered how that boy’s voice could trigger such intense emotion. I remembered how some of Mark Rothko’s last paintings, those gigantic fields of deep colour, have a similar effect on some individuals, and I recalled that in some therapeutic contexts music and song are used to enable individuals and groups to confront severe trauma.
In my case, that moment triggered an intense ‘remembrance of things past’ and a huge sense of both loss and love. I suspect we all have those triggers, those Proustian ‘Madeleine biscuit’ moments, when something – perhaps completely unexpected – plunges us into the deep well of memory, love and loss.
That afternoon, as I ironed that old newspaper (something my mother would have loved – the newspaper not the ironing!) and listened to that young boy singing those famous words, I probably missed her more than I’ve done at any other time.
This book chapter was first published in P. Jones et al. (2010) Sustainability Education: policies, perspectives and practices. London: Earthscan
Universities bear profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies, and tools to create an environmentally sustain- able future.
What we use on stage is a way to demonstrate that we are accountable to our relationship with the planet.
While for some disciplines the sustainability agenda is regarded as ‘natural territory’, the relationship of the performing arts (dance, drama and music) and the act of performance with that agenda is somewhat indirect and problematic. As a consequence, there are a wide and diverse set of understandings, discourses and practices around the notion of sustainability. These range from basic issues such as the use and recycling of the materials used in performances and productions through to more complex issues such as of the role of the arts as a tangible means of articulating and disseminating ideas about sustainability by, for example, exploring narratives of consumption and investigating our relationship with landscape and the environment. There is also the important issue of personal and professional sustainability in the face of an uncertain future. This chapter will explore and illustrate the manner in which some of these discourses and practices around sustainability appear in performing arts HE.
Working with sustainability
In 2008, a job advert appeared for a professorship in performance design and technical theatre at the University of Colorado. Alongside the usual outline of the responsibilities of such a position, the advert asked for: ‘an understanding of sustainability issues and willingness to articulate environmentally sensitive designs’ (Inside Higher Ed, 2008). Such a requirement probably would not have appeared until relatively recently, and its inclusion might be perceived as an indication of the extent to which the sustainability agenda has impacted on the performing arts in HE.Yet in their report Sustainable Development in Higher Education, Dawe et al investigated ‘how different subject disciplines taught within the higher education system are contributing to creating sustainability literate graduates’ and reported that the arts and humanities subject areas generally – and the performing arts in particular – identified the largest number of barriers to embedding sustainability in the curriculum. Those barriers ranged from an ‘awkward fit with the subject area to lack of staff expertise, irrelevance, financial restrictions and limited institutional commitment’ (Dawe et al, 2005, p4).
When I started out to research material for this chapter, I sent an email in September 2008 with the subject line ‘Do we do sustainability in higher education performing arts?’ to the online discussion lists of the three main subject associations in HE in the UK: the National Association of Music in Higher Education (NAMHE), the Standing Conference of Dance in Higher Education (SCODHE), and the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments (SCUDD). The email asked colleagues to comment on and, if possible, provide examples of how sustainability is understood and how it manifests itself in these subject areas. I received a number of interesting and detailed replies, many of which have informed what follows. But one in particular struck me as exemplifying both the possibilities and problems of addressing the notion of sustainability in the performing arts. The response in question was from a colleague in music, and he provided several examples of where he thought music is addressing, or could address, sustainability. The first was through the use of open, sustainable technologies to generate and disseminate music as a way of countering the ‘throwaway culture of mobile phones, mp3 players etc.’ This included teaching ‘as much programming as we can afford to so that students can make their own solutions’.
The second was through encouraging and enabling students to be active listeners, who have ‘the respect for sound which comes from recording it, shaping it and listening to it in an active and engaging way.’ It is through this ‘active listening’ that one can build ‘a sustainable aural understanding and thus a greater relationship with the changing sonic planet. The [use of] mp3 in-ear headphones is isolationist and should be strongly discouraged.’
The third was a recommendation to read Eric Clarke’s book, Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning (2005). This is an explication and application to the field of music of James Gibson’s influential ecological perceptual theory – which assumes that structure is inherent in the environment, not a construction of the mind, and that perception and action are tightly interlocked and mutually constraining (Spiegelberg, 2006; Zhang and Patel, 2006).
For the fourth he suggested ‘the study (and performance) of Beethoven. While I might think it’s time we listened to composers of the 21st century, Beethoven did die in 1827 – how sustained do they want it? (this is yet another reading of sustained, sorry)’.
Finally, he wrote that the biggest challenge for music in the academy is ‘the perceived need to adapt to uncharted changes in a mass-media dominated bums- on-seats driven climate’.
Although all the examples provided interesting and potentially valuable avenues to explore further, perhaps the most memorable and relevant of his comments was the final sentence of his message: ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the term sustainability at all. My apologies.’ The apparent confusion is, perhaps, unsurprising. While it is very noticeable – and the more one looks, the more noticeable it becomes – how the words ‘sustainable’, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’ have become part of the strategic, operational and everyday discourses and practices of both HE and the arts, one of the consequences of their ubiquity has been a multiplicity of definitions, understandings and misunderstandings of what the terms actually mean. The influences and impact of these various and varied currents and streams of discourse around the notion of sustainability manifest themselves in a plethora of ways in HE dance, drama, music and performance.
Sustainability and performance
Performance is increasingly regarded not only as a creative practice and mode of representation but also as a vital means of embodied enquiry and as analytical trope (Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC], 2009).
If one looks beyond and behind the word ‘sustainability’, and understands it – at least in part – as an active concern with the relationship between humans and their environment, and the impact and consequences of the activities of the former on the latter, then it becomes obvious that there is a sustained and rich tradition of that concern manifested in the performing arts. The arts, generally, have long been a powerful source of awareness, understanding and appreciation of our environment, whether it is the ‘natural’ world or the urban and industrial landscapes that the majority of the world’s population now inhabit. There are numerous works of art, literature and music in which natural, urban or industrial environments play a major role, and many of these – for example the art and literature of the Romantic movement – have left powerful and indelible marks on our individual and collective psyches. As Wasserloos reminds us: ‘The deep embedding of natural experience has remained a characteristic of Northern literature, painting and music as a mirror of nature since the 19th century to the present day’ (Wasserloos, 2007, pp1–2).
If one looks beyond and behind the word ‘sustainability’, and understands it – at least in part – as an active concern with the relationship between humans and their environment, and the impact and consequences of the activities of the former on the latter, then it becomes obvious that there is a sustained and rich tradition of that concern manifested in the performing arts. The arts, generally, have long been a powerful source of awareness, understanding and appreciation of our environment, whether it is the ‘natural’ world or the urban and industrial landscapes that the majority of the world’s population now inhabit. There are numerous works of art, literature and music in which natural, urban or industrial environments play a major role, and many of these – for example the art and literature of the Romantic movement – have left powerful and indelible marks on our individual and collective psyches. As Wasserloos reminds us: ‘The deep embedding of natural experience has remained a characteristic of Northern literature, painting and music as a mirror of nature since the 19th century to the present day’ (Wasserloos, 2007, pp1–2). Similarly, there are numerous works of art and performance that tell of humankind’s often baleful impact on these environments and the communities that inhabit them.
Performance is not only an action and an art form. In the discourses and practices of performing arts higher education, it is also a field of study and a method of inquiry (or a way of knowing):
Arts-informed research … may trump conventional forms of research when it comes to generating questions or raising awareness of complex subtleties that matter.The deep strength of using arts in research may be closer to the act of problematizing traditional conclusions than it is to providing answers in containers that are watertight. In this sense, the products of this research are closer in function to deep conversation and insightful dialogue than they are to error-free conclusions (Eisner, 2008, p7).
The arts can be seen as ways of doing, knowing and being that often involve multiple paradoxes and the holding-in-mind of many interpretations and positions (Danver, 2007). The philosopher Alva Noë, who has worked closely with dancers and choreographers, states that ‘experience, consciousness, is always necessarily embodied. It is always, necessarily, environmentally situated’. He goes on to say that performance – particularly dance – ‘is an enactment or modelling of the fundamental fact of our relationship to the world around us’ (Noë, 2008), and that dancers perceive of their dancing not simply as a form of doing or action but primarily as a research tool, a way to explore the world and to generate knowledge and understanding.
There can be no doubt that a concern with sustainability and, particularly, an interest in the relationship between performance and the environment has become an established strand in those discourses and practices. In 2005. the AHRC established its £5.5 million Landscape & Environment transdisciplinary research programme.The aim of this four-year programme is to develop ‘arts and humanities understandings of landscape and environment in distinctive, innovative and engaging ways’ (AHRC, 2005). Following the announcement of the programme, a symposium of academics from a range of disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, architecture, dance, drama and theatre, geography, literature, music and the visual arts, met under the title Enchantment and Haunting: Creating Landscape Through Performance to explore how the AHRC’s programme might be used to investigate, in particular the relationship between performance, landscape and environment.
The AHRC’s initiative was welcomed at the symposium ‘not least for how it might demonstrate distinctive arts and humanities contributions to our understanding of the bio-physical world, human relations to it, and their current constellation around both various environmentalisms and politics of place’ (Clang, 2005, p2). Among the many responses and ideas that the symposium produced, the emergent interest in ecologies of performance was highlighted ‘for its concern with relating epistemologies of performance and ecology, and for mobilising notions such as sustainability and recycling in performance studies’ (Clang, 2005, p4). There was also an interest in ‘investigating site-based or site-inspired “eco-theatre”, various environmental and land arts, and the role of performance in environmental education and environmentalism more generally’ (Clang, 2005, p4).
The importance of considering performance in relation to sustainability is that it is both a conceptual and practical terrain that has the potential to generate and provoke genuine shifts in attitude and behaviour by engaging the emotions and senses as well as the intellect, its ability to disturb accepted attitudes and behaviours and its facility to make the ordinary extraordinary.
Sustainability and drama
Theatre reaches audiences in a very personal and compelling way, touching both the heart and the mind. Because theatre can also impart technical information and encourage action, it addresses one of the most notorious challenges of the sustainability project: moving people from the status quo to sustainability action.
(Clark, 2008, p5)
In 1882 Henrik Ibsen wrote the play Enemy of the People, which is set in a small town that has invested heavily in tourism by developing a spa.The local doctor discovers and points out that pollution from the town’s tannery is causing serious illness amongst the tourists visiting the spa.The doctor is denounced by the local authorities, businessmen and press for threatening to ruin the town’s reputation and prosperity. Ultimately he is cast out of the town and branded ‘an enemy of the people’. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Director Siân Ede, in an interview for The Ashden Directory (a website dedicated to ‘bringing together environmentalism and performing arts’) says of the play:
[It is] the most interesting play in the field of environmental issues, and it’s one which I draw on all the time … It is a brilliant piece of writing that shows the political dilemmas surrounding environmental issues. It is the most fantastic example of somebody standing up for freedom and not looking at the commercial aspects of it.You see how unpopular the hero has to make himself and the effects on his family as a result of that. It ought to be done over and over again.You can hardly better that play (Ede, 2004).
While productions of Enemy of the People are relatively rare nowadays, there is a more recent history of education engaging directly with environmental issues and the performing arts.TheTheatre in Education (TIE) movement that thrived in the UK, particularly from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, focused its work in schools. Working and engaging with (rather than simply performing to) young people and teachers, TIE companies developed, produced and performed drama-based programmes ‘around a topic of relevance both to the school curriculum and to the children’s own lives’ (Jackson, 1993, p4). TIE was an ‘issue-based’ movement, and many of the companies pursued an agenda that enabled them to combine theatre, politics and education in a unique, potent and sometimes controversial mix.
One of the most influential of the many environmentally focused plays and projects produced by the TIE movement was Drink the Mercury by David Holman, who has written a number of plays directly tackling environmental issues. First produced in 1972 by the Belgrade TIE in Coventry, the play is still performed regularly around the world – an example, perhaps, of creating sustainable theatre? The play dramatizes, in an extraordinarily powerful way, the medical and social impact of 36 years of industrial effluent poisoning on the once-prosperous Japanese fishing community of Minamata and tells the story of the struggle of the surviving victims and their families for justice and reparation. (The famous ‘Minamata’ series of photographs by W. Eugene Smith (1996) is an eloquent and terrible testimony of that particular tragedy.)
An important feature of both the plays mentioned above (see note at end of this section) is the quality of the work – not only in the original writing but in their production. One of the challenges of the sustainability agenda in regard to the arts and arts education is that, perhaps inevitably, the discourses and practices of sustainability are often framed and influenced by the rationalism of the scientist and the pragmatism of the bureaucrat rather than the passion of the artist. Each, of course, is important in its own way, but when the artistic agenda is set by the scientists and/or the bureaucrats, the art tends to lose out. Siân Ede provides a typical example of this tension:
All our [arts] grants are for early research and development activities. I’m now half-wondering whether to do an arts and environment strand. But I think I probably won’t call it that. I’ll probably say we’re continuing to do R&D but this will include environmental issues. My fear is that very poor applications will come forward. My joke is always – and this is absolutely true – when I was on the Science on Stage and Screen Committee at theWellcomeTrust and we asked for things addressing science we got I can’t remember how many plays with the title Hello, hello, hello, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly.They were all really dreadful plays about cloning. Nothing had broken boundaries. Quality is the key issue. When people write to me with an application and say ‘We’re writing a play to change the world and these are the issues,’ I say,‘Well, who’s going to disagree with that? But are you any good?’ (Ede, 2004).
That ‘But are you any good?’ describes one of the tensions inherent in tackling sustainability in the performing arts curriculum. As Ede points out, very few if any would disagree with the sustainability agenda, so the ‘what’ is not in question. It is the how best to do it in a way that works which exercises those with responsibility for designing and delivering meaningful learning experiences in HE performing arts.
Such developments in HE performing arts are a response to some of the ‘hard questions’ identified by Kershaw about the theatre’s relationship with and response to the environment and environmental issues, and ‘the ambivalence of theatre in the face of a calamity for humanity’ (Kershaw, 2007, p10).
One of the hard questions Kershaw asks is ‘In what ways has the theatre been unavoidably embroiled in the ecological mess that is climate change?’ (Kershaw, 2007, p10), and anyone who has been involved in theatre-making and production will know that the theatre has a complex and difficult relationship with the notion of sustainability. On the one hand, the theatre is intensely frugal in the acquisition and use of resources, and simultaneously wildly profligate in relation to their disposal. In the face of the general lack of financial resources in the arts and the resulting, often severe, limitations on production budgets, designers have to be particularly innovative in their design solutions, and very resourceful in acquiring the materials to realize their designs. The constraints also mean that, when purchasing items, frequently only the cheapest options are or, up until recently, were pursued. Inevitably, questions such as where and how items such as timber were sourced were rarely if ever, considered.
More troubling, perhaps, from a sustainability perspective was the matter of disposal once a production had finished. The traditional theatre flat of painted canvas stretched over wooden frames was eminently recyclable. It is now rarely if ever seen, and many companies and theatres utilize the latest (affordable) developments in materials and technology.
Building-based theatre companies had scenic stores, props rooms and wardrobes where scenery, properties and costumes could be kept to be used or adapted in other productions. But in many cases, at the end of the last performance, the crew would dismantle everything on stage and much of it would go into a skip to be taken away to some landfill site.
Those practices were frequently replicated in the conservatoires, universities and colleges where the performing arts were studied and performed. With the increasing focus on sustainability and the environment, while the skip may still stand outside at the end of a production period, it now often remains partially filled or even empty, as policies – both explicit and implicit – on the acquisition, use and re-use of materials are taken on board and implemented.
Some HEIs are actively developing and promoting the sustainability agenda as it relates to the performing arts. In 2008, the Centre for Excellence for Theatre Training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London took part in the Mayor of London’s Climate Change Action Plan for London Theatre, with a series of focused discussions and open access forums. The conference, Theatre Materials/Material Theatres (Central School of Speech and Drama, 2008), included discussions on ‘sustainable theatre architecture’ and ‘sustainable theatre production’. Central is also involved with the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL on a project to rethink the design, fabrication and purpose of performance spaces and to explore ‘issues of sustainability and spatial innovation’.
As an example of the importance of demonstrating an institution’s sustainability credentials, a new music and performance centre was recently heralded by West Chester University in the USA for winning a prestigious rating for ‘features including use of products made from recycled materials, locally manufactured or harvested wood products from a sustainably managed forest, materials with low or no volatile organic compounds, and energy-efficient mechanical and electrical systems’ (Arnold Creek Productions, 2009). While this is, of course, admirable and welcome, in the light of Ede’s question ‘But is it any good?’ there is no clue as to whether the building works as a performance space.
Theatre companies, too, are now proclaiming their sustainability credentials. The 2009 tour of the musical Cloudcuckooland, produced by the Onassis Programme at Oxford University, which supports new writing based on classical Greek drama, claimed that it was perhaps ‘the first ever environmentally sustainable touring musical’ (Eastman, 2009). This claim, perhaps inevitably, set off a series of questioning and sceptical exchanges when it appeared on the SCUDD list, the discussion list of university drama departments (SCUDD, 2009).
As the notion of sustainability has risen up the agenda for HE, its integration into institutional practices has occurred not only at the macro level of strategy and policy, but also at the micro level of course content. Increasingly, performing arts students encounter course curricula and content that requires them to consider and demonstrate an awareness and understanding of sustainability issues in relation to their subjects of study and related activities.
In a typical example, students on a new technical/production degree course at Rose Bruford College (RBC), a specialist higher education performing arts institution in Kent in the UK, have to ‘demonstrate an awareness of the environmental issues associated with the live performance industry’ (RBC, 2008). This learning outcome is developed at all three levels of the degree course, but is only assessed at level three in a module that has the assessment task outlined below. RBC is now planning to introduce a sustainability element into all its courses (Email correspondence with author, 2008).
Project specification for RBC level three assessment
Students will develop a specification for a real-world live performance event with EITHER a) Full costings, technical specifications, creative overview, profit/loss breakdowns and environmental impact assessment for taking the performance to two commercial venues. OR b) Full costings, technical specifications, creative overview, environmental impact assessment and completed grant application (Arts Council, Lottery or others) for taking the performance to two venues. (RBC, 2008)
At another UK HEI, the University of Chichester, although sustainability per se is not addressed formally on the curriculum there is, as in other institutions, a significant amount of concern among students and staff about environmental issues. A senior lecturer reports that a considerable proportion of final year devised productions devote an element of their considerations ‘to the narratives of consumption and sustainability’ (Email correspondence with author, 2008):
In the past three years we have had a number of ecological disaster zones (exploded suns, waste-filled landscapes, spaces where the ‘natural’ reclaims a redundant ‘technological’ space etc.) Following more recent work and collaboration with an architect who designed ‘rain water capacitors’ blending glass architecture with gardening, I have engaged with two undergraduate devising processes that have engaged with ‘sustainability’. United States Of Austerity (2006) drew on the imagining of an unsustainable city and worked from Paul Auster’s novel Country Of Last Things and Donald Barthelme’s They Called For More Structure (Email correspondence with author, 2008).
At Edith Cowan University in Australia, one of the project units on its Contemporary Performance course was based entirely on sustainability and the environment. Students created four original performances that were presented as part of the university’s annual theatre festival.The festival was staged entirely at an inner city site that, 14 years previously, had been a heavily degraded and polluted industrial area, and which, by the time the Peppercorn Festival took place in 1997, had become a rehabilitated wasteland developed according to permaculture principles. The titles and descriptions of the productions, which were produced to coincide with World Environment Day, demonstrate very different takes on the project theme (Edith Cowan University, 2007).
The examples above demonstrate that there are clearly a number of opportunities and a variety of ways in which sustainability issues can be and are being addressed in performing arts curricula. The first example, namely ensuring that students have properly to consider the environmental impact of their plans and activities, is a more formal approach that is more in line with the legal and regulatory framework that has developed around sustainability. While it is clearly essential that students who are planning careers in the performing arts – particularly in the areas of design, management, and technical production – are made aware and have some experience of sustainability considerations in relation to their work, it does not necessarily follow that they themselves are interested in or committed to sustainability. Rather like health and safety regulations, there is a danger that sustainability issues can be perceived merely as something that has to be taken into consideration along with everything else.
In the other examples, students are creating work that has a sustainability theme. This approach may not have the force majeure of legal obligation, but it does provide the opportunity, through the process of research, devising, performance and reflection, for students to develop, individually and collectively, an intellectual, emotional and even a political commitment to the idea of sustainability. Students are increasingly creating work, and being increasingly encouraged to create work, that is ecologically themed because it is clear that it is important to society and its survival. This work is then communicated through various arts and performance practices to the wider culture, where it contributes to the ‘warming effect’ around sustainability. One of the academics who responded to the question ‘Do we do sustainability in the performing arts?’ described this process as follows:
While it may be considered that the performing arts subject areas do not share the immediacy of subjects such as architecture or engineering sciences, they are valued by colleagues in these areas who welcome the opportunity to either use the performing arts as a means of communicating ecological sustainability issues and practices, or draw on the knowledges (e.g. of space, narrative and decision-making processes) of the subject area. (Email correspondence with author, 2008)
One curriculum area in drama/theatre that does lend itself to the integration and promotion of sustainability is that of applied drama or applied theatre (Nicholson, 2005). Both terms are used to describe an expanding set of practices and accompanying discourses in which theatre and drama skills and a range of other skills are applied in specific contexts such as communities, prisons, schools or hospitals. The teaching of applied theatre and drama necessarily involves equipping students with the pedagogic experiences and tools that enable them to conceptualize and develop into their roles as emerging applied theatre practitioners who will, as graduates, go out into the community and find work in such roles, thus continuing and expanding the field and themselves.
Courses in applied theatre have embedded in them many opportunities for students to engage with sustainability issues through placements and the development of applied theatre projects for and with a range of arts and non-arts organizations and communities. At the Central School of Speech and Drama and at Royal Holloway, University of London, part of this provision enables students to set up and run projects in developing countries. Providing these curriculum opportunities creates the first layers of potential sustainability, that is, the students develop links (and future jobs) while on their course, and through undertaking projects in the community develop their skills as practitioners.
NOTE: In a remarkable but potentially tragic example of life imitating art, on 21 February 2008 the New York Times reported a story under the headline ‘Mercury Taint Divides a Japanese Whaling Town’. The story combines elements of Enemy of the People and Drink the Mercury. Taiji, a seafaring town in Japan, is (in)famous for its annual dolphin drive, involving the slaughter of hundreds of dolphins. The NYT reported that high levels of mercury had been found in the mammals, and that a member of the town’s council, backed by scientific evidence, was fighting a lone battle against the authorities and the local fishing community who insisted that the danger was overblown.
Sustainability and music
Imagine if all sound-related disciplines added soundscape listening, analysis and topics of acoustic ecology to their course curriculum.
(Westerkamp, 2001, pp3-4)
The ethnomusicologist Jeff Titon describes music as ‘a human bio-cultural resource’, and writes about ‘worlds of music’ as ecological systems (Titon, 1984, p9). The subject area of music – which in HE includes related areas such as sound technology and sonic arts – offers a range of approaches and activities that provide opportunities for students to enhance their thinking and practice on the environment and sustainability.
The importance of, and threats to, the physical environment – both locally and globally – has been paralleled, but in a much smaller way, by a recognition of the importance of the acoustic environment. In this respect, the development of the discipline of acoustic ecology has been very significant.The underpinning philosophic principles of acoustic ecology were developed 30 years ago by R. Murray Schafer in his seminal book The Tuning of theWorld (Schafer, 1977). A sophisticated and complex discipline, it focuses on the relationship, mediated through sound, between living beings and their environment and it considers the acoustic environment as a ‘soundscape’ in much the same way one might consider the physical environment as a landscape. For example, there are ‘soundmarks’ that are analogous with landmarks, and which are sounds of particular significance (e.g. waterfalls, church bells, trains) in a particular community or environment (Wrightson, 2000).
Schafer’s terminology helps to express the idea that the sound of a particular locality (its keynotes, sound signals and soundmarks) can – like local architecture, customs and dress – express a community’s identity to the extent that settlements can be recognised and characterised by their soundscapes. Unfortunately, since the industrial revolution, an ever increasing number of unique soundscapes have disappeared completely or submerged into the cloud of homogenised, anonymous noise that is the contemporary city soundscape, with its ubiquitous keynote – traffic.
(Wrightson, 2000, p10)
The influence of Schafer’s ideas can be seen, for example, in a 2008 project for music students at Bristol University called Urban Soundscapes: Music in the English Town 1800–1900.The project entailed second- and third-year music students exploring the 19th century soundscape of a particular city. According to the course documentation, they had to do this in ‘as specific and unique detail as you can muster, relating it to whatever concept of overall coherence seems to you most fruitful … Give attention, where appropriate, to geography, architecture, institutions, communities and significant individuals’ (Banfield, 2008).
At Tufts University in Massachusetts, 100 students from across a range of disciplines worked with a composer to create a ‘cross-disciplinary audio exhibition’, using the university campus as a psycho-acoustic map. One of the aims of the project was to make people become far more aware of their audio environment, to think about and question the elements that go into making it. The instigators of the project also recognized that it had a political purpose in enabling people – through enhancing their understanding – to take or at least have some control over their acoustic environments.
Although neither of the projects above has nor makes explicit links to sustainability, they fall clearly into the category of work that raises an awareness of and concern for the environment that is one of the essential first steps in changing not only peoples’ attitudes but also their practices:
Soundscape and acoustic ecology approaches are important to us pedagogically … In these projects we explored a range of technologies that allow environments to be ‘brought inside’ the classroom, to be considered and reflected on and used as a source of musical expression. Whether this is a geographical or social environment, individual or collaborative reflections can lead to an increasing sense of environmental awareness.
(Savage and Challis, 2001, p38)
One of the problems that music has in relation to sustainability (or any other non-musical topic) is that music, for many, essentially concerns itself with composition, performance and analysis – that is, it is all about the music, musicianship and musicology. However, reporting on a cross-disciplinary initiative that involved academics reflecting on how sustainability might be made relevant to their subjects and demonstrating how environmental sustainability could be integrated into at least one course, Wachholz describes an approach to a music curriculum that explicitly links music to sustainability. It takes the form of asking music students to explore a number of sustainability-related topics and questions (Wachholz, 2007, pp5–6).These include:
• What might be the consequences of global warming on the music and music traditions of African peoples and communities who have to leave their homelands due to drought and famine?
• How might an unclean or polluted environment affect musicians? (Example: an increase in asthma and other respiratory conditions.)
• How might music have contributed to the problem? (Example: the glorification of the automobile in popular music.)
• Exploring sustainability in music instrument production. (Example: Investigating what and how many different types of wood and other materials are involved in making string instruments, pianos and so on.)
• Exploring sustainability in music consumption. (Example: What is required of the environment for the production or dissemination of music – the energy consumption in mounting a huge venue concert, the energy needed and waste produced in the glass mastering, electroplating, stamping, moulding, metallization, lacquering, printing, and packaging of CDs or DVDs, the necessity of battery disposal for iPods and other such gadgets, and so on)
(based on Wachholz, 2007, pp5-6).
If one accepts Titon’s description of music as a ‘bio-cultural resource’ (Titon, 1984, p9) then one could add to those questions and topics an exploration of what it is to be a musician in a rapidly changing cultural environment (Bennett, 2008, preface). It is perhaps no accident that Helen Stowasser, in her foreword to Bennett’s work, uses an environmental analogy:
It is widely recognised that the survival of all living things on this planet depends largely on their ability to adapt to environmental changes. It is also acknowledged that plants nurtured in a hothouse (also known as a conservatory!) do not always survive when transplanted into the open air. Classical musicians are no different, and if they are to avoid extinction they need to develop the diverse skills required to survive in our present day multicultural, economic rationalist and computer-dependent society
(Stowasser in Bennett, 2008, foreword).
Although music is not immediately a candidate for the integration of sustainability into its curriculum, the examples in this section demonstrate that it – as a discipline – provides a number of fascinating and excellent opportunities to explore sustainability: from the personal to the practical and political.
Sustainability and dance
Dance, as with drama and music, has had a long-standing relationship with the environment and, particularly, landscape. This relationship has become ever more explicit with the development of organizations and companies such as Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance (iLand) and Human Landscape Dance. iLand describes itself as ‘a dance research organization with a fundamental commitment to environmental sustainability as it relates to art and the urban context, cultivates cross-disciplinary research among artists, environmentalists, scientists, urban designers and other fields’ (iLand, 2009). Matthew Shute, the Artistic Director of Human Landscape Dance, writes:
By plying the counter-tension between person and space, this group reveals humanity’s interdependence with our world … The group treats the interconnectedness of man and nature through modern dance in public spaces.
The concerns about the environment, and questions about sustainability and sustainable practices, have become increasingly the concerns of the discipline, and because many dance practitioners are also dance teachers in HE, there is a constant flow of ideas, practices and people between the dance world and that of HE dance. It is important to remember that dance is not just an art form but also a form of enquiry and research (Noë, 2008; Eisner, 2008), and the HE dance curriculum reflects these concerns. Dance courses and dance institutions have begun to explore questions that range from ‘How we can better understand the environment through movement practice?’ to ‘What are sustainable dance practices?’ and ‘What constitutes a healthy dance ecology?’
Also as with drama and music, one of the recurring themes in dance is that of personal sustainability, that is developing the knowledge, the skills and, importantly, the attitudes that might enable an individual to sustain a career in what is a particularly demanding and difficult field of work (Bennett, 2008, p1). Professional dancers, in particular, tend to have relatively short careers as ’working dancers’, and teachers, researchers and practitioners in dance have grappled increasingly with the notion of sustainability, not only for what it means for individual dancers but also for what it means generally for dance.These and similar questions formed the agenda for a student-focused symposium on Sustainability, Ecology and the Moving Body (University of Northumbria, 2009) that explored ways that the discourses and practices surrounding sustainability might become core discourses and practices in the discipline of dance.
Finally, it is worth mentioning an alternative approach to encouraging students to engage with sustainability. Some US HEIs, as part of their strategic and operational commitment to sustainability, have recently begun to require that all students, regardless of their main subject of study, undertake a sustainability- related course. At Goucher College in Baltimore, for example, all first-year students are ‘required to explore the ecological and/or policy dimensions of environmental sustainability’, and they are offered a choice of 17 courses that range from the scientific to the philosophical and ethical (Goucher, 2009). One of the courses, Consumerism, The Media, Popular Culture and the Environment, is one that might well attract dance, drama and music students. The course description is, perhaps, a useful way to end this chapter on sustainability and the performing arts curriculum because it encapsulates many of the themes that have been discussed, as well as some of its aspirations for a more sustainable world:
This course will examine the relationship between culture and environment.We will focus on how the mass media and popular culture create and perpetuate the mythology of the American Dream and the “good life”—with all its material abundance and consequent wastefulness. How does our culture talk about various forms of consumption? What is the relationship between the media, cultural and political elites, corporate entities, and the consumer? How do we, as an audience, receive, internalize, and operationalize these messages? And how can we escape the mantra of “more is better”? The course will include a strong experiential component meant to encourage students to live in more sustainable ways
(Goucher College, 2009, p93).
This chapter has demonstrated that while dance, drama and music in Higher Education may well appear to have an ‘awkward fit’ with the sustainability agenda (Dawe et al, 2005), appearances can be deceptive. It is perhaps the nature of that agenda and, particularly, assumptions about how best it should be implemented that provide the awkwardness. It is clear that the performing arts not only have a long and significant history of creative engagement with environmental issues, but also that they continue to play an important and influential role in the development and transmission of ideas, attitudes and calls to action in relation to sustainability.
* * * * * * *
I am indebted to the following dance, drama and music colleagues across the UK and further afield for their invaluable help, advice and comments: Stephen Banfield, Janette Barrington, Gill Clarke, Dave Coslett, Nick Fells, Ashley Hanson, Nick Hunt, Adrian Moore, Misha Myers, Kate Newey, Mary Oliver, Claire Parfitt, Sheila Preston, Tina Ramnarine, Julie Robson (Australia), Matthew Sansom, Mark Seton (Australia), Trevor Wiggins and Andrew Wilford.
AHRC (2005) Landscape & Environment http://www.landscape.ac.uk/index.html Accessed 30 March 2009 AHRC (2009) Living Landscapes, Landscape and Environment Programme Conference, Aberystwyth University, June http://www.landscape.ac.uk/2009conference.html Accessed 30 March 2009 Arnold Creek Productions (2008) A New Course for Higher Education: Integrating Sustainability across the Campus, available at http://www.arnoldcreekproductions.com/ SustainabilityHigherEducation.htm Accessed 2 July 2009, accessed 30 March 2009 Banfield, S. (2008) Unit booklet for course MUS120134/MUS130134 , Music Department, University of Bristol Bennett, D.E. (2008) Understanding the Classical Music Profession:The Past, the Present and Strategies for the Future, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot Central School of Speech and Drama (2008) Theatre Materials/Material Theatres, available at http://www.theatrematerials.org.uk, accessed 2 July 2009 Clang, P. (2005) Enchantment and haunting: Creating landscape through performance, Report on the AHRC Landscape and Environment Framework Seminar, Royal Holloway, University of London, June Clark, G.E. (2008) ‘Bytes of Note: Sustainability Theater’, Environment Magazine Sept–Oct, available at http://www.environmentmagazine.org/Bytes%20of%20Note/ Bytes-so08.html, accessed 3 July 2009 Clarke, E.F. (2005) Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning, Oxford University Press, NewYork NY Danver, J. (2007) ‘A coincidence of opposites: notes on inbetweeness in art-as-enquiry’, Discourse Power Resistance: Research as a Subversive Activity conference, Manchester Metropolitan University, April, available at http://www.johndanversart.co.uk/research/ coincidence.htm, accessed 2 July 2009 Dawe, G., Jucker, R. and Martin, S. (2005) Sustainable Development in Higher Education: Current Practice and Future Developments, HEA,York, available at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ assets/York/documents/ourwork/tla/sustainability/sustdevinHEfinalreport.pdf, accessed 23 January 2010 Eastman, H. (2009) ‘Theatre and the Environment’, Email to the SCUDD discussion list, 23 March, available at http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind0903&L= SCUDD&P=R42034, accessed 3 July 2009 Ede, S. (2004) ‘But is it any good?’, Interview with The Ashden Directory, available at http://www.ashdendirectory.org.uk/featuresView.asp?pageIdentifier=2004824_19169253, accessed 30 March 2009 Edith Cowan University (2007) The Peppercorn Festival: Growing Contemporary Performance, available at http://www.sca.ecu.edu.au/data/tmp/the_peppercorn_festival_ web2.pdf, accessed 2 July 2009 Eisner, M. (2008) ‘Art and knowledge’, In Knowles, J.G. and Cole, A.L. (eds), Handbook of the Arts in qualitative research: Perspective, methodologies, example and issues, Sage Publications,Thousand Oaks CA Goucher College (2009) Academic Catalog, available at http://www.goucher.edu/documents/ Records/Goucher_Academic_Catalogue_2009-10.pdf, accessed 21 Feb 2010 iLand (2009) Mission, available at http://www.ilandart.org/about.cfm, accessed 3 July 2009 Holman, D. (1972) Drink the Mercury, The Belgrade TIE, Amber Lane Press Inside Higher Ed. (2008) Advert, 15 September Ibsen, H. (1882/1997) Enemy of the People, Faber & Faber, London Jackson, A. (1993) Learning through theatre: New perspectives on Theatre in-Education (2nd ed), Routledge, London Kershaw. B. (2007) Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge May, T and Fried, L. (2009) ‘The urban animal: a conversation with Theresa May & Larry Fried (part i)’, Interview with ecoTheater, available at http://ecotheater.wordpress.com/2007/08/24/the-urban-animal-a-conversation-with- theresa-may-larry-fried-part-i, accessed 14 July 2009 Nicholson, H. (2005) Applied Drama (Theatre and Performance Practices), Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke Noë, A. (2008) Dance as a form of knowing, available at http://www.blip.tv/file/996998, accessed 19 Feb 2010 RBC (2008a) Course documentation, BA (Hons) Digital Live Arts Programme, RBC, Sidcup Savage, J. and Challis, M. (2001) ‘Sound reflections’, Soundscape:The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, vol 2, no 2, pp35–38 Schafer, R.M. (1977) TheTuning of theWorld (The Soundscape), Random House, NewYork NY SCUDD (2009) Discussion thread on Theatre and the Environment, available at http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A2=ind0903&L=SCUDD&P=R42443, accessed 14 July 2009 Shute, M. (2009) Artistic director’s note, available at http://forum.article19.co.uk/ topic.php?id=229, accessed 19 February 2010 Smith, W.E. (1996) Minamata, available at http://aileenarchive.or.jp/ aileenarchive_en/slides/index.html, accessed 2 July 2009 Spiegelberg, S. (2006) ‘Review of Eric Clarke’s Ways of Listening’, Empirical Musicology Review, vol 1, no 2 Stowasser, H. (2008) ‘Foreword’, In Bennett (2008) Titon, J. (1984) Worlds of Music, Schirmer Books, NewYork NY ULSF (1990) The Talloires Declaration, available at http://www.ulsf.org/programs_talloires.html, accessed 27 June 2009 University of Northumbria (2009) Sustainability, ecology and the moving body January, available at http://dissolvingborders.wordpress.com/sustainability-ecology-and-the- moving-body, accessed 2 July 2009 Wachholz, S. (2007) ‘Engaging faculty and greening the curriculum:Teaching for sustain- ability’, Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium Sustainability Conference, Bowdoin College, Brunswick ME, October Wasserloos,Y. (2007) ‘Beyond Grieg – Edvard Grieg and his diverse influences on music of the 20th and 21st centuries’,The International Grieg Society Conference, Bergen May, available at http://www.griegsociety.org/filer/1139.pdf, accessed 31 January 2010 Westerkamp, H. (2001) Editorial, Soundscape:The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, vol 1, no 2, pp3–4 Wrightson, K. (2000) ‘An introduction to acoustic ecology’, Soundscape: Journal of Acoustic Ecology, vol 1, no 1, p10 Zhang, J. and Patel,V. L. (2006) ‘Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance’, Cognition & Pragmatics, vol 14, no 2, pp333–341
Back in 2016 I presented and wrote a piece ‘Predictive Texts’ that took a look into the future of the arts in 2026. I described a cultural landscape in which the arts had largely been stripped out of the educational experience of children and young people. I described the consequences of that policy on the live performing arts sector which was now being by-passed by a generation of students who had not received consistent, or in many cases any, arts education through primary and secondary education where the focus was on STEM education. I reflected on how that educational neglect had led to a kind of cultural blindspot or illiteracy which, in turn, had led to a severe decline in arts attendance as that generation of millenials now sought other avenues for their entertainment and spending.
As I write this (July 2021) the plans by the UK government – or that part of the government that is responsible for what happens in England –to cut funding for arts and creative subjects in higher education have been confirmed by the universities regulator. This is a major step on what has been a long and no doubt continuing attack on the arts in education. Some are describing it as the biggest attack on the arts in education in living memory.
Even before the Covid crisis there had been many dozens of articles written in the last few years voicing concern about state and future of the arts in the UK, particularly in education. The onset of the Covid crisis and the consequent economic crisis is now threatens the existence of the entire creative sector, particularly those parts of the sector in which live performance in an integral part of their raison d’etre: live theatre, dance and music. Almost daily there is news of another theatre or performance company announcing they are having to go into administration.
The decision to cut arts funding in higher education confirms that the UK Government (England) is quite prepared not only to see a drastic diminutions of the arts in education but also, as a consequence of this and other policies, to allow whole sections of the creative sector ‘go to the wall’ despite the fact that the sector as whole contributes massively to the GDP. The contrast with the government support of the fishing industry, which played such a huge role in Brexit, is stark. At present fishing contributes around £1.4 billion to the economy (Gross Value added data from the Office for National Statistics). The creative industries contribute around £111 billion to the economy.
Those creative industries are fed via a pipepline of skills and talent that are nurtured in our education system. By ensuring that the supply is cut off, the government is ensuring that the creative industries – and certainly those parts of the sector that are seen to be less ‘valuable’ in economic terms wither on the vine. Perhaps it is no coincidence that those sectors voted in large part against Brexit and against the Tories at the last election. Boris Johnson has a well-deserved (and well-evidenced) reputation for valuing loyalty to Brexit above all other considerations.
As a bleak future for the arts beckons, I am reminded of a sentence from a 2015 book by the eminent producer and impresario Michael Kaiser titled ‘Curtains? The Future of the Performing Arts in America’. Examining all the current but pre-Covid trends, Kaiser describes a ‘doomsday scenario’ in which, across America, many theatres, arts centres and other performance venues, hit by the decline in audiences and/or funding, “sit vacant, reminders of a different era, not unlike the Colosseum in Rome and the Parthenon in Athens”. Kaiser was projecting some years into the future, but in the UK the Covid crisis has massively accelerated the onset of that doomsday scenario.
Thinking about all this I was reminded of a book I read years ago, which remains one of my favourite books (it’s also on Neil Gaiman’s list of all-time favourites, so I’m in good company). The book is called Lud-in-the-Mist, written in 1926 by Hope Mirrlees. Mirrlees was a classicist, and much of her work dealt with the contested boundaries of Art and Life.
In Lud-in-the-Mist there are two countries. There is the land of Dorimare, a nation of stolid burghers, merchants and artisans. A rather prim and very proper place, where everyone knows their place, where the motto is essentially ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, and where the arts are relegated to activities such as needlework and country dancing: pursuits for the refinement of gentlewomen and gentlemen.
On the border of Dorimare, however, on the other side of the Debatable Hills, lies the land of Faerie, a strange, dark land full of mysteries and wonders…not all of them pleasant. The upright citizens of Dorimare so fear the land that lies beyond those dread hills, that the word ‘Faerie’ is never to be uttered.
Dorimare’s main city of Lud-in-the-Mist lies at the confluence of two rivers: the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dawl is like any other commercial river, but the Dapple happens to flow out of the land of Faerie, and brings with it fairy fruit, that is smuggled into Dorimare. Eating fairy fruit has a terrible effect on the upright citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist: it causes people to start singing strange songs, to spout poetry, to dance with abandon. In other words, it turns them mad.
The plot revolves around the disappearance of a group of young ladies and the Mayor’s son who have been kidnapped and taken to the land of Faerie, and the attempt of the Mayor, a bumbling, self-important, rather fatuous man to rescue them. (Any resemblance to a real persons is entirely coincidental). As a consequence of that quest, fundamental changes are wrought – to the Mayor and to Dorimare itself.
In Lud-in-the-Mist, Mirrlees is dealing with the division of the world into Apollonian and Dionysian aspects: the homely and the wild. There is also the long battle between Classicism and Romanticism, and Freud’s theories of the conscious and unconscious mind, and the relationship between terror and beauty.
The actor Mark Rylance, in an interview, said that the arts are essentially ‘mysterious’ which is why they frighten politicians and policy-makers, because they can’t control them, they can’t measure them.
I imagine the educational curriculum in Dorimare’s schools is very much what like the one demanded by Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times;
“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.“
And if you think that’s rather extreme, consider this – handed to parents at a primary school in London in 2015:
‘The new programme of study in English is knowledge-based, this means its focus is on knowing facts rather than developing skills and understanding. It is also characterised by an increased emphasis on the technical aspects of language and less on the creative aspects.”
So, alongside the plans for schools to drop all ‘non-core’ subjects i.e. arts subjects and a few others, from the school curriculum, in order to enable students to catch-up on everything they’ve missed due to Covid, we now have what are catastrophic cuts to arts subjects in higher education in line with the government’s insistence that all higher education programmes must align with “economic and societal needs” – which the government believes will only be met by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) programmes and some others such medicine and agriculture. One can only look with envy at the financial support Germany and other countries such as New Zealand are putting into supporting their creative and cultural sectors as they recognise the importance and value of those sectors to the well-being of society as a whole.
I was once asked, by the then German Federal Minister of Education as it happens, as we stood together in the queue for coffee at a conference on the future of Arts Higher Education in Europe, what it was that had made the UK such a world leader in art, design, fashion, music , theatre, etc? He was comparing the UK with his own country and the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, Germany – with a relatively successful economy compared to the UK – had demonstrated nothing like that level of consistent creative output over the years.
I didn’t have a rigorously researched, evidence-based answer to give him, but I did say that I thought it had something to do with our long history and tradition of non-conformity, of sticking two fingers up to authority, and our high and genuine tolerance of mavericks and eccentrics. Neither of which, I suggested humbly, were common attributes in his own country.
The Minister said ‘Ah, that’s very interesting’…and moved on.
I was thinking about Lud-in-the-Mist because it seems to me we are increasingly living in a country which is becoming more Dorimare-like by the day, where the arts are increasingly banished to the equivalent of the land of Faerie, where creativity is associated with the creation of goods and wealth, where any hint of an artistic or genuinely creative spirit is dismissed as bad influence, and to be actively discouraged and eliminated.
Across our education system, from primary through to tertiary, there is now a very real danger, evidenced by the significant drop in the take-up of arts subjects, of subjects like art, dance, drama and music disappearing entirely from the curriculum. The clear and present danger for the wider creative arts sector will be the cutting off the pipeline of interest, skills and talent on which the sector relies. We are facing the prospect, in many areas of the country, of the spectre of a cultural wasteland, not unlike Kaiser’s ‘doomsday’ scenario.
A hundred years ago, in Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrless asked how might we truly embrace the arts in all their wondrous, dangerous, life-affirming glory along with the eccentrics and mavericks? Or are we fated to banish them, their works and deeds, to that strange, wonderful, forbidden land beyond the Debatable Hills?
The final, celebratory chapter of Lud-in-the-Mist, as the citizens of Dorimare throw open the gates of the city to allow those mysterious, dangerous, life-affirming Faeries to enter, provides the answer.