Friday, 18 December 2009

User-generated. Content?

How people blog when they are really busy is beyond me. I have been far too preoccupied with two very different tasks. They are linked, tenuously I guess, around the theme of co-production. Much of my past month has been spent in hospital with my daughter, trying to negotiate a way of treating her lung condition that keeps her as well as possible and all the family as sane as possible. Home treatment saves the NHS thousands of pounds a day, despite the cost of home IV antibiotics. Evidence says that hospital treatment has more effect, but whether evidence is too generalised to count for our experience (I’d say we were now ‘expert patients’) and factor in our emotions is difficult to say.

Before that, I was working with the fantastic team at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Earlier this year, Artistic Director Kerry Michael announced that, for the first six months of 2012, the Theatre would open up its programming process to allow our public to completely decide on the Theatre’s programme, two seasons of work on the main stage, studio spaces, bar and off-site. My job was to scope the idea, gather examples of similar initiatives, and begin to create a recommended framework for how this could be done. We named the project Open Stage.

It’s clear that, even within the arts, Theatre Royal is not alone in its ambitions, despite Mark Robinson's account of the arts sector’s ambivalence to this agenda. Notable recent innovations included the Nuffield Theatre Lancaster, London Bubble's Fan Made Theatre, and Fierce Festival's recent innovations The combined might of the British Museum and the BBC are also contributing to this zeitgeist, enabling participants to upload photos of their objects as part of their wonderful ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ initiative, starting in 2010. User-generated content will create the worlds largest museum, adding to rather than challenging the curatorial decisions which led to the first one hundred choices.

However, the Theatre Royal’s plans feel more radical, unique and genuine than anything else I researched. In a way, the concept is already part of the Theatre’s DNA. The theatre has long held a reputation for being a “theatre of the people” and the aim of Open Stage is to take that a step further, building on Joan Littlewood’s ‘continuous loop’ philosophy by giving real programming power to the people the Theatre serves. As Joan herself once said:

I really do believe in the community. I really do believe in the genius of every person. And I’ve heard that greatness comes out of them, that great thing which is in people. And that’s not romanticism, d’you see?

Beyond some financial and ethical constraints, everything about how and what the theatre programmes is genuinely up for grabs. My central suggestion (with huge thanks to Kate from Fuel) was around the creation, through public consultation, of an Open Stage brief, which artists around the world could respond to, and the public would then select and curate from. But the project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, could go in many exciting directions. In the midst of Olympic rhetoric and real, often turbulent change in its Stratford heartland, Open Stage could have a huge influence, not only on the Theatre Royal, but on the whole theatre and arts sector.

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