Mission Possible – an agenda for the future of performing arts in higher education

It's not just Covid-19 that has put the performing arts at risk - toxic cultures in the disciplines and industry are also at fault. Mark O'Thomas sets out an agenda for reform and renewal.

The production of Mission Impossible 7 (codenamed Libra) has been besieged by a series of setbacks.

First, filming in Rome during March had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak taking hold in Italy. Then, in August a motorcycle stunt rig in Oxfordshire was consumed by a fire in a scene that was reportedly among one of the most expensive ever filmed in the UK.

Rogue nation

However, even faced with the stop and start of lockdowns and shapeshifting tier classifications, at least much of the television and film industry has managed to return to some kind of a working schedule. For those working in the live arts of theatre, dance, and music, the impact of the virus has been near catastrophic.

Despite a government bailout of £1.57 billion, theatres remain dark, freelancers struggle to access financial support, and the relentless cycle of lockdowns has served to undermine public confidence in the safety of venues where the physical expression of vocal droplets into the atmosphere is endemic to its art.

The crassly flawed “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber” campaign, the subsequent backlash and inevitable U-turn along with the resurrection of the value-for-money and quality debate over under-performing degree programmes have further underscored uncertainty in the higher education sector where on the one hand, students are being actively discouraged to choose arts-based subjects at university while on the other institutions themselves are increasingly turning away from delivering them.


None of this is to suggest that HE arts training, teaching, and research has got everything right in recent years and is now the innocent victim of events entirely beyond its control. Just as the performing arts industry has had to face some harsh realities about its working practices, its auditioning processes, its legacy of silence over sexual abuse, and its marginalisation of global majority communities, UK conservatoires have been rocked by a series of allegations, review findings, and top-level resignations as public calls for systemic change from both staff and students have become insurmountable.

Meanwhile, the rest of the arts sector in universities – those many institutions that teach the performing arts outside of the intensive conservatoire system – have no cause for complacency as we all embark into a world that is eminently better thanks to the impact of movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter.

This better world, however, cannot discount or downplay a daily reality that feels like walking a tightrope of ensuring a high-quality (and safe) experience for students that puts their wellbeing foremost while at the same time delivering sufficient numbers in recruitment to be sustainable in the highly competitive market economy in which we all now work – one where the discipline of performing arts appears to be in a constant fight for self-justification.

As Darren Henley, chief executive of the Arts Council, has made clear in his three excellent books on this subject, there is a tangible arts dividend that we all receive as a result of funding the arts. This is clearly something we have become more aware of during the pandemic as the inevitable decline of active participation in the arts has been more than matched by the exponential increase of the streaming of its outputs.

So, what can we do to safeguard our disciplines and ensure that there is a real future for students who are committed to study the performing arts in higher education? I suggest a future agenda for institutions and programmes that is unafraid of change and seeks to make clear the real societal and economic benefits for nurturing the next generation of artists.

…should we choose to accept it

In order to advocate for what we do and how we do it, we in the performing arts must change and change for the better. In doing so, we should do the following.

Engage with our local communities through our arts practices and, where we already do so, develop the evidence base to communicate this work more effectively. There is a lot of excellent work of this kind already going on all over the country, but it needs to be more deeply embedded in our understanding of the broader purpose of higher education and our articulation of what we do and why we are doing it.

Place diversity, inclusion and equity at the heart of everything including our hiring, auditioning, artistic programming and partnering with other organisations. There are already some great examples that have come out of the performing arts industry, such as the Royal Court Theatre’s Code of Behaviour and the Old Vic’s Guardians programme which have sought to provide frameworks to ensure the safeguarding of staff. What is needed now is a framework for higher education that builds on this and develops ideas around, for example, positive action and career sponsorship schemes, in ways where the discipline can start to lead rather than follow.

Develop the guru model that is so endemic to certain performing arts training methodologies and make it more collaborative, organic, and open-ended in its structures and processes. We need to conserve and preserve the historic practices of our discipline, but we also need to evolve them and make them fit for the century in which we now live.

Internationalise everything – refute the potential of post-Brexit insularity by promoting the international diversity of our art forms, the content of what we teach, and how we teach it, and ensure that our students are true citizens of the world in all of its complexity. Eastern Europe has long had an influence on actor training, for example, but there are whole continents, histories, and practices that are often eclipsed in the Anglo-American framing of performing arts training that warrant attention and inclusion.

Hold ourselves and our institutions accountable for the welfare and safety of our colleagues and students.

Acknowledge our own privilege(s) and be prepared to listen to others while also acknowledging the multifactorial and intersectional dimensions of inequalities and prejudice.

Set ourselves goals that arise from structural reforms that are unafraid of challenging received wisdom or mindsets which seek to delay, prevaricate, and complicate as a response to taking direct actions that can have immediate and long-lasting effects

These are not impossible tasks but nor are they necessarily easy to instigate. However, if the performing arts are to progress on to a more optimistic future in higher education, we need to redefine that future for both ourselves and others. In making this possible, we can educate, develop, mentor, encourage and partner with the next generation of artists in ways that celebrate the essential empathetic qualities of our art forms.

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