Theatre Critic and Journalist

Are you Devoted & Disgruntled about theatre? You’re not alone

Are you Devoted & Disgruntled about theatre? You’re not alone

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 24.01.2011

For the last five years, in an invariably cold room, assorted theatre practitioners and aficionados have gathered under the collective title of Devoted & Disgruntled. True, it sounds like the adopted pen name beneath a particularly huffy letter to the Telegraph, but this is in fact one of the most vital events in the theatre calendar. This year, it feels more important than ever.

The first Devoted & Disgruntled event took place six years ago at the Battersea Arts Centre, initiated by Improbable theatre. Typically, each lasts for two and a half days. Using open space technology – a technique that allows a self-selecting group of people to take ownership of an event and determine its course and content – anyone can raise a topic or question to be discussed by an interested subset of the whole group. In other words, it is a conference that collectively sets its own agenda.

Right now, that feels both necessary and urgent. Under the coalition government, things are changing for the arts. New models have been proposed, new ideals imposed. Though some arts leaders have made noises about philanthropy, about collaboration, it’s not as if these changes have been freely chosen. They have been delivered from on high and, regardless as to what one thinks of them, they demand some form of reaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean individuals and organisations must conform. For some, it may entail exactly the opposite. What’s certain is that those changes necessitate response, and Devoted & Disgruntled provides an opportunity for theatre-makers to dictate their own terms in order to determine a response to such seemingly obligatory terms.

If artists and organisations are to take ownership of their position, they must do so both collectively and individually. We cannot afford the them-not-us attitude that sprouted from the mismanaged Arts Council cull of 2008, which saw leading practitioners advocating the supremacy of one kind of work over another. Instead, artists must work together to find common ground. Where better to start than the equal footing of Devoted & Disgruntled?

But that mustn’t rule out individual responses on a smaller level. Companies must reposition themselves as they see fit. Practical responses are as important as ideological ones. Again, Devoted & Disgruntled can offer a space for such explorations. Just as there are as many Hamlets as there are actors, everyone has their own experience of Devoted & Disgruntled. You dictate your own journey through the various sessions, seeking out what concerns or interests you. Unlike other conferences – and I’m not even sure “conference” is the right label – it is not composed of keynote speeches and listening in the dark, but is based on mutual exchange. It’s a pooling of ideas and experiences, a sharing of advice and opinions. It is an opportunity for collaborations and longer-term connections to spark into life.

If theatre is to move forward from the situation it now finds itself in, surely we must make full use of any opportunity to come together and regain control. It’s worth reiterating one of D&D’s core principles: “Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.” For the moment, at least, the current situation is in place. It’s what comes next that matters.

Image: Improbable Theatre

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