Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Assessing the Abbey, Branding, Joss Wheedon and The Need for Soul

Some years ago the great Tom Coughlan, pipe in hand and smile on his face as always, told me his plan to revitalise the theatre industry in Ireland (the perennial problem). Let the Arts Council give a shed load of money to Saatchi and Saatchi to run a twelve month campaign selling the "idea" of theatre to the general public. Problem solved.

Tom is a hard man to disagree with so I nodded but secretly thought it was a bit simplistic and off the point.

The recent Abbey debacle over assessment brought Tom back to mind. Before I go any further let me say that, in my opinion, this debacle is precisely that: neither party should have suggested or agreed to an outmoded, discredited and secretive process; the assessment should have been contextualised by extending it to all other major clients; the media shouldn't have allowed themselves to be played the way they were and we could have done with a bit less bandwagoning.

I'm also a part time conspiracy theorist so forgive me for suggesting that  - from a certain point of view - the whole thing smells like a plan to discredit Senator MacConghaile and justify further funding "rationalisations" coming down the track.

Personally I've seen some great shows in the Abbey and some absolute shit (in my opinion), but I've had the same experience everywhere. The worst show of the last twelve months was an RSC production in Stratford. But that's the nature of the process - win some, lose some: fail again, fail better.

As I mulled all this over beneath the naked swinging lightbulb of my conspiracy chamber deep in the recesses of my mind I suddenly realised that Tom Coughlan had hit upon a great Truth.

It seems to me, having spent a year in the company of people with no professional involvement in theatre,  that from their point of view there is no "theatre experience" in this country. Don't get me wrong, there are theatres and theatre companies, productions and personalities and artists, but they don't add up to anything coherent, greater than the individual parts. There's no sense of an "experience" that exists over and above any given production.

Tom would have said there's no Brand. And I think he might be right.

Brands and Branding can sometimes be thought of as dirty words, a trick employed by rapacious  corporations. But a brand doesn't work if you think its something you can put on like a ready to wear suit. The best brands emerge from a deep understanding of the emotional connection between you and  the people you engage with, they emerge from passion and focus and creativity. They change your behaviour and they change the way you think, they are an expression of vision, belief and perception that exist over and above, independently of, any particular manifestation.

Think about Apple.

Apple is bigger and more significant than any of its constantly replaced and upgraded products. The iPhone, the iPad, the iMac are - more than anything else - proof, talismans if you will, that you are a particular kind of person. Like many people I have done the pilgrimage to the Apple store in New York. Not to buy anything. Just to experience it.

A brand is an experience. It is something that people belong to; it expresses and defines us and - and at its best - it is something that is loved passionately. If Apple produce a dodgy product we forgive them and defend them against all critics (although if we get a slate of dodgy products we lose faith, we stumble with them, and the brand begins to break).

So, does theatre in Ireland, not any particular instance of it but THEATRE, have a brand identity? Or is it just a random dispersal of places and events, silos ultimately, manifesting nothing beyond themselves.

A brand exists when the experience takes precedence over the thing. When the experience, the emotional investment, the relationship, of being at the theatre (not at a particular place to see a particular company) takes precedence over the strength or weaknesses of the specific production, we have a brand; we have a culture.

In the absence of that we have a  collection of random, discrete events expressing only themselves for their brief hour upon the stage. We have marks out of five and the assessment of the Abbey.

A brand is a manifestation of soul, an expression of purpose and community. I would suggest that the absence of brand is a hallmark of society, not just theatre. When our national leaders run around desperately trying to "rebrand" Limerick and the like they are expressing a desperate national need to find a soul again, to find purpose and community.

As one of my heroes, Joss Wheedon, remarked in an interview, "You can't make something that people like. You have to make something they love. And they have so much love to give".