As a freelance reviewer, press nights never fail to instil an antithetical mixture of imposter syndrome and cockiness in me, the two humours in perpetual, nauseating conflict and catalysed by complimentary glasses of wine and crudités.
I’m a frugal freelancer and the mere whisper of a freebie makes my pupils dilate and pulse sky-rocket, transforming me into a giddy Snack Vulture, swiping enough hors d’oeuvres to constitute a full, balanced meal.
Reviewing plays on behalf of my university magazine was how I primarily accessed ‘high’ arts as a student, with politely composed emails on the wink and nudge of glowing press. It’s the ecstasy of knowing I’m getting something for free and gaining access to an important cultural institution which gets me off. Because I don’t deserve to be there, because I can’t afford to.
Two years ago, I attended and reviewed David Greig’s retelling of ‘The Suppliant Women’, inspired by Aeschylus’ 2,500 year-old text. This was a story of perilous migration and asylum, and true to the original Greek production, the story was delivered by a chorus of young women sourced from the surrounding Southwark borough.
After finding my seat in the auditorium of The Young Vic, a suited man took centre stage. This was, as I would later discover, a libation from then parliamentary under-secretary for Arts, Heritage and Culture, Conservative MP John Glen.
True to the tradition of Ancient Greek performance, Glen read from a list of the play’s sponsors, praising government subsidisation of the arts before pouring a bottle of red wine along the porous grey stone of the stage, and declaring with all the lifeless conviction of a former Head Boy throwing his first house party, “in the name of Dionysses, god of wine, rejoice!”
The appearance of a Conservative MP who’d played a crucial part in slashing arts funding and disrupting arts education was, needless to say, pretty unappetising. As Arts Council England reported last month, despite Arts and Culture contributing more to the UK’s economy than Agriculture (that is, £10.8bn at last count), 74% of arts organisations have felt the effects of public funding cuts.
Doubtlessly intended as a self-congratulatory appearance for doing such a grand job, Glen’s characterless enactment of civic official duties was a timely reminder of the grip which money and politics hold over culture. We live in the shadow of Westminster whether we like it or not, and MPs are, in part, cultural tastemakers.
Money confirms the legitimacy of ‘high art’ cultural products and there’s an inseparability of high art and a high price.
We only have to look at the ticket prices of productions at Opera and Ballet productions bolstered with ‘Royal’ accreditations to discern the distinction (I just checked, they’re generally between £20-180).
When you’re a culture-loving freelancer, the best things in life are rarely free. But hey, without dwelling on the darkness, this week’s cultural column is a how-to hack guide for navigating elitist cultural institutions without the politically determined price-tag.
Opera is seen by many as the most upper-class of cultural disciplines; dusty, dated and coldly uninviting. Living in Vienna, I was blown away by the city’s initiative of live-screening Summer productions to a small courtyard immediately outside the immense Royal Opera House, complete with free deckchairs and cup holders.
I brought friends, tinned beer and a shockingly low-level understanding of German subtitles, so whilst the majority of plot points were lost on me, I was enormously grateful for the opportunity to access an otherwise intimidating art form, with all the home-comforts of my favourite blanket and with a light dusting of strudel crumbs over my lap.
In the UK, the Royal Opera House run their ‘Young ROH’ scheme, offering students to freely register for discounted productions ranging from £1-25, and separate, of course, from the full-price productions, because can you imagine paying £180 and then having to actively mix with the unwashed masses?
Tickets are available for Opera and Ballet productions, including Yuri Grigorovich’s productions of Spartacus, Swan Lake and Shostakovich’s The Bright Stream. In a similar vein, Opera North Under 30s Scheme and Scottish Opera also run discounted schemes for students, which is great news, if you’re a student.
If you are a student, and a student who’s vying for access to art galleries and exhibitions without the significant expense, it’s worth investing in a Student Art Pass which, cryptically, you can buy for £5, only during a specific window (you can register to be alerted when it opens).
Once you’re in, you can access 50% discounts on exhibitions.
Including Lee Krasner’s Living Colour at the Barbican, Manga マンガ at the British Museum and Henry Moore’s The Helmet Heads at The Wallace Collection.
Another venue which offers an outstanding young people’s scheme and outreach programmes is The Roundhouse. Their Get In scheme offers those aged between 16-25 the opportunity to buy £5 tickets to select gigs and plays.
Having recently attended their Poetry Slam Final as part of the Last Word Festival, where their 2019 winner Kareem Parkins-Brown was crowned, I was blown away by the organiser’s sincere hospitality and the exceptional creative talent of the evening’s hosts and performers alike.
The venue is also hosting the second run of Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles running from the 18th July until 24th August, as well as Bridget Minamore’s curated Global Black Voices project, premiering excerpts of plays by black writers from around the globe.
Whilst the majority of money-saving initiatives are geared towards students, being a student is a privilege for those who can afford to carry the weight of debt around their necks. Indeed, being unable to afford cultural expenses is not exclusive to those under the age of 25.
The majority of these schemes are funded by charities, trusts and wealthy individuals, including the Royal Opera House’s scheme which has been “Generously made possible by the Bunting Family and Sir Simon Robey”.
Similarly, the Student Art Pass scheme is supported “A consortium of funders including the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Eric and Jean Cass, The Roger De Haan Charitable Trust and contributions from private individuals and trusts.”
However you choose to hack your way into the labyrinth of high art, consider the words of Fight Club author, Chuck Plahniuk, who reminds us,
“The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.”
To hell with highness, go forth, and make your own art. Rinse the benefits of the company-funded printer at your day-job and fashion a zine series about the experience. Failing that, buy a cheap hi-vis off eBay and do as the plucky VICE journalists do.