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Radical Theatre: How a collective from the 1970s can inspire actors in today's troubled times

Theatre, for John McGrath, was a "Good Night Out". In the aftermath of the pandemic, McGrath's radical collective, 7:84, provides pointers for how we can generate an actor-led recovery...

Rob Horsfield

Since the initial lockdown of March 2020, with a brief respite in the summer and autumn, cinemas have been closed across the UK.

Unlike the recipients of the Culture Recovery Fund, cinemas are usually franchises of a large corporation, and so have largely been left to their own devices. In the UK, cinemas have seen a 76% drop in ticket sales. Maybe unsurprisingly, 2020 was the first year since 2007 that saw the year's highest grossing film earn less than a billion dollars at the box office. That film, the Chinese blockbuster The Eight Hundred, didn’t even make $500 million.

Until the recent interest from a Chinese business, Cineworld was set to collapse, with more than 5,500 jobs at risk after they closed their theatres in response to the news that the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, wouldn’t be released until April.

Independent cinema in the UK is having an even more torrid time of it. In a survey conducted by the Independent Cinema Office (ICO) in May 2020, 37% of independent cinema employers expect to make redundancies or have already made redundancies since the pandemic began. The majority of independent cinemas expect that, even with public funding, they will be able to fund their staff’s salaries for another three months at most.

New strategies will need to be thought up if film-makers are to have their films receive the exposure they deserve. But is there a source of inspiration from examples of revival in the past?

A Good Night Out

One potential inspiration comes from an unlikely source. Founded in 1971 by playwright John McGrath and actors Elizabeth MacLennan (McGrath’s wife) and David MacLennan, 7:84 was an agitprop theatre company, aiming to bring the art form out of the grip of the middle classes and into the lives of working-class people.

Their name came from the statistic, published by The Economist in 1966, that 7% of British people owned 84% of the country’s wealth; by putting that figure front and centre, the company asserted their admirably unapologetic political agenda.

By 1973, 7:84 operated on two fronts, as 7:84 England and 7:84 Scotland, and had begun to tour what became their most famous production, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil, a triumph of genre hybridity, combining pamphleteering and the Gaelic ceilidh with more traditional dramatic forms to provide a historical polemic and articulate a potent, alternative political reality to its audience.

However, the primary aim of McGrath and his company was to give people, as the name of his book-cum-manifesto states plainly, A Good Night Out, by having an unabashed love for fun and the social. Theatre and actors were to be enjoyed alongside friends, food, and alcohol.

For this reason among others, 7:84 decided to eschew the traditional theatre circuit and take their plays and productions to working men’s clubs, pubs, and even hotels during their lifespan. They cut a new path to accessibility for those interested in watching some theatre.

Grassroots Change

The recent audio footage, leaked to The Sun, of Tom Cruise yelling at personnel on the set of the upcoming Mission Impossible title, indicates the extent of the pressure on the industry at present. “If we shut down it’s going to cost people fucking jobs, their home, their family. That’s what’s happening,” Cruise assured them, at volume. Work in film, already difficult to attain, is becoming far more tenuous.

Independent filmmaking is looking like it could be a more viable alternative while theatres and cinemas are closed – especially because of the creative freedom small projects tend to afford.

Chadlee Skrikker, a writer and director based in South Africa, spoke to me about the way he’s been funding his projects since Covid-19. He distributes his films on YouTube to utilise the site’s massive reach:

"Our channel has been growing slowly but steadily, with big bursts of subscribers whenever we actually upload something. We've accrued about a million and some views."

Skrikker then uses his work’s popularity on YouTube to advertise for funding through a variety of platforms, such as Patreon, as well as locally based funding apps like ThundaFund. Rewards for subscribing on Patreon include receiving an advance viewing of his films through the app before they're uploaded onto the public channel and included in the film festival circuit.

But the economic situation is such that not even the festivals themselves are safe from financial hardship.

Many people working for film festival productions have not had their employment contracts renewed, leaving the future of this route to mass exposure and acclaim uncertain.

The example of 7:84 feels more pertinent than ever, seeing as the movement saw actors take matters into their own hands to make theatre fun, accessible, and profitable. But how to go about creating 7:84 today?

A New 7:84?

Sadly, 7:84 England fell apart after losing their grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain, following their refusal to adhere to new guidance under the Thatcher government to depoliticise their work. 7: 84 Scotland came to a similar fate in 2006, after the Scottish Arts Council cut its funding on the grounds that the theatre company had ‘no national role'.

Both theatre companies relied heavily on the interests of two public bodies which were (and still are) controlled to some extent by the interests of governments – who naturally carry their own political agendas. This limited the scope of what 7:84 could do.

A still from a play by 7:84.

But creative projects in Britain in the 21st century, with the advent of the internet and the crowdfunding with it, don’t have to be. They can be totally unshackled from all forms of discrimination, elitism, and nod-and-wink nepotism.

As I mentioned above, and as readers I am sure will be tired of reading about, there are a host of sites from Patreon to Pledgie that exist to help an artist grow.

The trick will be to capture the attention of people ‘out there’ and to begin to realise your own work – however 'different' or 'avant-garde' – through the creative freedom those platforms allow.

7:84’s insistence on working outside the pre-existing framework, both logistically and artistically, which derided as ‘panto for the working classes’ in the past, would be lauded as economic genius today.

In a post-Covid world, when the high streets are closed and many entertainment venues will be derelict, with much of the industry confined to streaming services, a film company – one that goes out to community centres, libraries, and pubs – could generate a lot of interest indeed. Communities like FlairBox could provide the first seeds of such an initiative.

Rob Horsfield holds three degrees – from Leeds, Warwick, and Westminster – and divides his time between work and his full time job, his cat. He is published in the Exchanges Journal and The Dhakha Tribune.

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