Indie Theatre: how can you tell?

Icons, branding, labels … the medium as message, but what’s the message or meaning when it comes to theatre labels?  There are lots around, and I’m curious about one in particular – independent.

I see it and its diminutive and the very buzzy word indie everywhere.  I’m sufficiently that way inclined – too much of the academic life perhaps – to think it important to understand the meaning behind labels, and so it is that I’ve been mulling over this one again.

Labels can be worn as a badge of pride, a rallying call even. I was involved in a twitter discussion on labelling earlier today, one auspiced by the 2amt websit. Click on the #2amt hashtag in Twitter and get a flavour of what some of the north Americans and one lone Aussie were chatting about. Yes, it was about labels but as always happens, it segued into a whole lot more.

I know labels are generally reductive and even abhorred by some, but they are out there and are used by a wide spectrum from arts bureaucracies through companies and individuals to claim and/or define identity.  You can reject them, but you can’t ignore them.

Try completing a grants application form without filling in the boxes that ask about artistic vision, ideology, business plan or other affiliations – the things that identify you or your group. Whilst the resulting labelling may be in someone else’s terms, you will find yourself and your group relegated to a particular ‘sector’ and will be dealt with accordingly.  That might sound a bit grim, but that’s the realpolitik of arts-funding.  And that’s why clarity of thinking and engagement in the debate by all stakeholders is not only useful, but maybe even essential to the survival or otherwise of the wider theatre ecology.

Anyhow, here is the summing up from an earlier mulling over to contextualise my thinking.  That post dealt with labelling and focussed on professionalism.

Self-identification by a company is rife with terminology that is clearly part of the jockeying process to be taken seriously, to belong as a professional with all its connotations of excellence and dedication. But without a doubt, the waging practices of groups is the key discerning factor in what separates the professional theatre from the rest. But there’s a long continuum of self-identification by the ‘other’: ‘Semi-professional’,’pro-am’, ‘Emerging’, ‘Independent’, ‘Fringe.’ These are all monikers that groups adopt to define their status in the wider, now commonly identified as ‘independent theatre’ sector. No one in this particular discussion used the term ‘amateur’ when referring to their own on their group’s status. This clearly is yet another defining term that has negative connotations for those aspiring to recognition as professional. I did, however, find the term in use on NYC-based director and blogger Isaac Butler’s recent post The Delusion Driving Much American Theater.

Butler talks about ‘pro-am’ theatre companies as ‘theaters and artists doing professional quality work for amateur wages and largely in an amateur environment.’

I have no doubt from the passion of some of the participants in the discussion that these are loaded terms, if not fighting words! What else is interesting in Butler’s post is his statement that most US theatre is ‘pro-am’ …

My thinking on this whole definition business was revved up again by a couple of blog posts elsewhere especially one (with a contentious conclusion) titled ‘Thinking about independence’ from Australian blogger Augusta Supple.  I tossed out a tweet: ‘So when is indie theatre fully professional, and when pro-am? Can we sort this out to start?’  And away we went.

To cut to the chase – here’s what I’ve drawn from the discussion with the 2amt crew:

  • No one likes labels even though we keep using them.
  • The meaning of the labels we apply to theatre e.g., indie, professional, community and so on are pretty much locale specific – at least when it comes to comparing and contrasting across national and even city boundaries.
  • Arts politics are the drivers of definition especially in places where the non-profit theatre depends on government funding, as in Australia.

I was reminded gently by one of the north-American based discussion participants on the #2amt stream that we should never take our country’s support of non-profit theatre for granted and, of course, she is right.  Are we the self-styled ‘lucky country’ then in Australia when it comes to ‘stable govt funding of arts?’  Perhaps we are … and that’s another question that could well get kicked around.

So, it’s back to the local table it would seem … to local arts politics and economics.






3 responses to “Indie Theatre: how can you tell?”

  1. […] suspects were having a #2amt twitter round table the other day on the general topic of labels and What the Heck is ‘Indie Theatre’ Anyway? Questions being posed were like such: what is it exactly that ‘independent’ means? […]

  2. […] elsewhere and will, undoubtedly, go on. I’ve written elsewhere on this issue – here and here. Last week I noticed that Katherine Lyall-Watson revived the discussion in a post called […]

  3. […] line into independent territory? Some time ago on my personal blog I mulled over what was meant by independent and professional when it comes to Queensland’s theatre. What is clear is that labels are a […]

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