I was at a conference recently looking at how the creative industries can deal with the cuts in arts funding. We were put into small working groups and to break the ice, we were asked to tell each other about that moment, that experience which turned us on to the arts. There were some great stories about pantomimes, school dance groups, listening to music on the radio, visiting a gallery, but this was not just an idle question to get us talking. We were reminding ourselves why the arts matter.
My story was about theatre. As a child, I didn’t have a background of theatregoing, but when I moved to London as a 19 year old, this was one of the things I wanted to redress. Not having much money, I bought cheap seats in the Gods and chose musicals and comedies because I saw going to the theatre as being about enjoyment and having a good time. I still think these are pretty good reasons for going to the theatre.
One day, I decided I should branch out and go and see a drama, if only to say I had done it. I knew about and loved Shakespeare because I had studied him at school, but other than that, my dramatic knowledge was pretty scant. I didn’t quite stick a pin in the listings pages of Time Out, but I picked a play simply because I had heard of the two lead actors, the late, great Tom Bell and a pre-Gandalf Ian McKellen. The play was “Bent” by Martin Sherman at the Criterion Theatre.
“Bent” did not come in to the category of a play to enjoy. It was a harrowing piece about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany with horrific acts of violence, including one which happened off stage but with screams the memory of which can still churn my stomach, and a second half set in Dachau concentration camp. As “just” a play, it was superb; great writing, perfectly staged and with two outstanding lead performances which became my benchmark for judging great acting.
And it was much more than that. This play moved me beyond words, stunned to the point where I distinctly remember a kind woman helping out of my seat. The experience made me read about the history of the period, about the Holocaust, about gay persecution. It made me think about intolerance, inequality and the freedom that human imagination can find in the darkest of circumstances. It made me question my own attitudes, ignorance and character. It also made me realise that a piece of theatre can have a power way beyond the two or three hours spent directly engaged with it.
The arts can inspire us, fire our imagination and enable us to express ourselves. They can connect us to others, take us out of ourselves and make us feel better about ourselves. They can make us think, help us learn, move us and delight us. This is why the arts matter to me and this is why I am committed to supporting arts practitioners through my work.
What was your moment, when were you first fired up by the arts?
Why do the arts matter to you?