These are the topics that are the focus of my current work.
Raymond Williams the Welsh novelist, academic and critic described culture as 'one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language'.1 Place it in the context of Northern Ireland and the layers of complexity expand. If Williams were writing today, he might find sustainability equally challenging such is the breadth of usage and the nuances within disciplines. A search on Twitter for #culturalsustainability returns a host of results; clearly people see the subject as important but there is no consensus on meaning.
Part of my research is to take apart the term and examine each word from their roots. With culture this involved considering the etymology of the word, reviewing the literature from Arnold through to Hewison and drawing on work relevant to Northern Ireland. I am drawn to the idea that the most meaningful way to interpret culture is by examining the organisation of social structures. I believe that, in Northern Ireland, we find opposing groups using similar cultural tools such as music, literature, marching, flags and emblems as a shared basis for disagreement. I will explore this in the context of my venue case studies with particular focus on the drivers that lead to the establishing of a new venue. With sustainability I take a similar approach in order to understand the word. I look at the other established branches of writing on sustainability; environmental, economic and social and look at how they influence the interpretation of cultural sustainability. Certain ideas are emerging as threads; ecosystem and life cycle, borrowing from the future, leaving things in a better state than we found them. Using this approach I hope to emerge with a working definition of cultural sustainability which can be applied within the context of work on theatre space in Northern Ireland.
Shop Front Theatre
Northern Ireland was particularly badly hit by the recent recession, high streets across the province have suffered and there are many empty shopfronts. Three Northern Irish theatre companies have chosen to engage with this is a positive way. Big Telly, in the seaside town of Portstewart, acquired, by chance, a former bank and have established a vibrant new practice emanating from the shop window and extending to the shops and businesses beyond. The work is highly inclusive providing the community with the chance to engage as audience, participants, practitioners and originators of work also providing opportunities for arts graduates and established performers. Most of the work is presented free of charge. This model has been so successful that neighbouring local councils have asked the company to pilot similar schemes in their areas. Cahoots NI have carried out similar work in Belfast, though largely focussed on presenting work and Kabosh present almost all of their work in non theatre spaces, including disused commercial premises. This exciting and innovative new work forms a substantial part of my current work. It feeds directly into my work on cultural sustainability and asks searching questions about the nature of theatre space and the role of established, formal theatre spaces.
The Arts Theatre, Belfast
The Arts was established in the 1940s in a small found space in the centre of Belfast when wartime movement restrictions meant there was very little touring theatre reaching the province. The Arts began by presenting interesting, challenging, contemporary work from Genet, Anouilh, Tennessee-Williams, Eliot and eventually early Beckett and other new Irish playwrights. The company grew in success and moved through a number of found spaces, each bigger than the last, until they got their own purpose built 400 seat venue in the University district in 1961. The company commenced to present the same interesting programme but cinema and TV affected houses. By the mid-'60s the programme consisted largely of farce and local pot-boiler comedy. The Troubles from 1969 reduced audiences further and the Arts closed and reopened several times during the '70s. Various building interventions over the decades changed the auditorium layout, each chasing a higher seatcount than the last; it was over 500 in the final incarnation. The last few years of its existence saw the Arts receiving a programme of amateur drama and musical comedy with the occasional professional drama as part of the Belfast Festival at Queens. I'm interested in drawing out the story of the Arts and its various spaces, viewing it through the filter of cultural sustainability. The Irish Theatre Archive at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast has a large selection of programmes and press cuttings along with some copies of meeting minutes and reports from the later years. I am currently trying to find drawings and photographs of the earlier spaces and the various developments of the new building. If you can help me track done this information please get in touch.
1. Raymond Williams, 'Keywords : A Vocabulary of Culture and Society ', London; Fontana, (1976), p. 26.