Inclusivity and Excellence

There is a drive toward “Excellence in the Arts”, and there probably should be. I do find the phrase slightly bothersome though.  It’s just that ‘excellence’ in creative expression is utterly relative and subjective.   You could go to the best opera with the best opera singers in the best opera house in your best opera frock or suit, expecting ‘Excellence with a capital E from Art with a capital A’, and yet walk away feeling empty and unmoved.  You could go to a community project with all kinds of ‘non-excellent’ theatre practice going on, yet be moved to tears and uplifted to heaven. So what’s the go?

The Australia Council has long used this phrase ‘artistic excellence’.  Their ‘about’ page is worded thus:

We invest in artistic excellence through support for all facets of the creative process and are committed to the arts being more accessible to all Australians.

‘Excellence’ doesn’t always allow for the spirit of inclusion—that is, art for everyone.  Do you hold with the premise that Art (capital A there) is for everyone to see, feel and participate in?  If you do, you believe in inclusivity.  I’m not 100% sure that ‘inclusivity’ is a word, and my Grammarly spellcheck function is sure treating it as suspect, but nevertheless you do hear people speak the word with all the confidence of folk who are on top of their politically correct vocabulary. 

But what is inclusivity?  What does it mean for writers?  I’m struggling with a few ideas here, so bear with me.  

Inclusivity often used to describe a policy that includes people with a disability, giving them equal access and opportunity in the Arts. So proper inclusivity in this definition would be about going along to see a production of  Macbeth, say, at the Royal Shakespeare, and without any sense of fanfare or politically correct back-slapping, have Macbeth being played by an actor with a profound hearing disability, or a MacDuff in a wheelchair or a Lady Macbeth with Down’s Syndrome. No bruhaha. No point to make. No metaphoric justification. Just this is the actor we wanted, and here he or she is. End.

Which is cool. But this is a different type of inclusivity I am talking about here. What about inclusivity that accepts performances from those less trained, emerging artists, people from different theatre cultures? What about community theatre that has an important story to tell but may not tell it in a way that you think of Excellence? Is that sort of inclusivity not cool?

I ask these questions because some time ago I saw a group of artists, many of whom have limited training and are what I might call emerging artists, and the rest being amateur performers just giving it a go, perform a self-devised series of performance art/theatrical pieces.  I’m sad to say I remained steadfastly unmoved by the event, and very sceptical of its merits overall.

It seemed to me, however, that the players were thoroughly committed to the performance and passionate about the ideas behind the performance. The ideas were hackneyed though and were in desperate need of a dramaturg to tease out the fresh voice they undoubtedly could have brought to it. The delivery lacked discipline, nuance, and clarity.

But, hang on, Madam Critic. This was their show. They were doing their thing, their way, with their resources, with their understanding, 100% on the case. Even though I did not find it to be ‘Excellence in Art’, it had every right to happen exactly as it did. The players clearly felt they were being excellent, as excellent as they could muster. No doubt some members of the audience were with them in this thought. Who the hell am I to label it as not excellent?

There’s that subjective, snobbish and relative judgement sneaking in.

I will be involved in any number of community theatre projects in the coming 12 months, some of them are huge projects and will depend almost entirely on the Excellence or otherwise with which untrained artists gather and perform important stories. Many artists included will have a totally different point of view on Excellence. But their voice will be valid and truthful and worthy of listening to. I’m looking forward to it. Big time.

As a writer, where do you sit with Excellence? How do you feel about seeing writing/performing that is inclusive yet not quite what you’d call “excellence”? How forgiving are you of a truthful story told badly but as part of a policy of inclusivity?

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