What's the secret of eternal life for a theatre company? Only a few organisations have demonstrated the knack of staying afloat through poverty and plenty. How do they do it?
Why do some arts organisations survive and thrive while others wither and die? What are the secrets of longevity and continued creativity? Those are some of the questions that will be raised at the Independent Theatre Council conference in London this Friday. I'll be chairing a session called Reasons to be Cheerful, which will bring together Judith Knight of Arts Admin, Jenny Sealey of Graeae and Tim Webb of Oily Cart – organisations that between them have notched up almost a century of experience right at the top of their game, and have demonstrated an ability for reinvention and adaptability that means that they're as crucial today as they were when they were founded. They've survived and continued to thrive in times of both poverty and plenty, so are there lessons to be learned that can be useful to others – particularly in an age of austerity?
Longevity alone strikes me as a doubtful premise. Surviving and living to the full can be two quite different things, for a theatre company or building as well as for you or me. As the work of John Knell and Missions, Models, Money has suggested, we perhaps need to be more willing to challenge the mindset, widespread across the arts sector, "that it is wrong, indeed a cultural crime, to let an arts organisation die". There may be times when it really is best to do just that, particularly if it offers others the gift of life.
After all, in nature it is only when you cut away the dead wood that other plants get the light they need. One of the many reasons we have to be cheerful in the arts at the moment is that we clearly have a rising generation of theatre-makers who are busy building relationships and creating networks, and to see the value in that can be greater than simply trying to scramble up the funding ladder. I've also seen companies facing funding crises who as a result have suddenly rediscovered all the energy and enthusiasm they had 20-odd years ago, before their mission was lost somehow under a pile of other concerns.
What's clear is that, in the age of the fashionable pop-up, wisdom and experience need to be valued and celebrated – particularly in a theatre culture in which the next hot company or teenage playwright often gets more attention than the established company or the mid-career writer. In fact we have an extraordinary number of companies – from Forced Entertainment to DV8 and Complicite to Cheek by Jowl – that have been around for years and are still reinventing themselves.
So what are their secrets of success? I very much doubt there's a one-size-fits-all check list, otherwise somebody would have published it by now and probably made milions. But I'd guess that there are some qualities that play a major role, besides the obvious necessities of talent and luck. There's little doubt they include clarity of vision; leadership; entrepreneurial flair and a willingness to take risks; frequent artistic renewal and a developed sense of self-criticism, so when things go wrong (which they will) you can learn from it; a strong, well-connected and skilled board who are supportive without being defensive; a willingness and ability to make relationships of different scales and with many different kinds of organisation, some like yourself and some markedly different; skill in building communities of interest around the work you're doing; an understanding of where you sit in the wider arts ecology; a will to constantly engage and re-engage with audiences.