Sarah Hemming writing on Living Newspaper in the Financial Times

Published on Fri 18 Dec 2020

By Sarah Hemming 

“We needed to come back with a piece of work that wasn’t a monologue by one writer,” says Vicky Featherstone, the Royal Court’s Artistic Director. “We needed to find something which would embrace the spirit of what we were learning over this time. It could be political, it could be fast, it could be responsive — and it could employ as many people as possible.”

Living Newspaper: A Counter Narrative is inspired by a much earlier creative endeavour likewise forged in crisis. Living newspapers became a leading strand of the Federal Theatre Project, the major artistic intervention in President Roosevelt’s New Deal for 1930s America. Aimed at employing artists and spreading both entertainment and information, they sprang up across the US, fielding enormous casts and delivering galvanising political drama about pressing social issues.

Subjects included slum housing, trade union rights, public ownership and even vaccination against syphilis. Audiences could watch Spirochete for free and get vaccinated at the same time, says writer and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove, an expert on the living newspapers who has acted as consultant for the Court: “They asked local Catholic priests to come on the first night to show there was no shame in being vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease.”

Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Joseph Losey and Elia Kazan cut their teeth with the FTP, as did one Burt Lancaster, who appeared as a trapeze artist long before he became a Hollywood star. But the scheme was bold in both content and form, raising serious, controversial subjects and embracing diversity.

The Royal Court’s Living Newspaper will emulate the energy, ethos and purpose of their predecessors. But they play out now in an era of 24/7 news and instant opinion. So what can they add?

“We have news fatigue,” says Featherstone. “So we’re not trying to put on the daily news because we get that on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s not about that: it’s a counter-narrative, responding to the moment we’re in. The writers have been much more interested in the local, the untold or the global.

“We’re really in a time again of activism and protest,” she adds. “Speaking to young artists over this period, they want theatre to feel more political again.”

The project also arrives at a time when news itself is contested and mainstream media are under threat. Questions about who controls the narrative, and where people find their news, have never been more pressing, says Daniel York Loh, one of the writers on the first edition.

“The whole idea of news is quite contentious at the moment, because of the issue about disinformation and conspiracy theory and this inherent, almost visceral, mistrust of any media,” says York Loh. “People are choosing the voices they want to listen to. We can interrogate that idea of what is getting into the news and what isn’t.”

The plurality and diversity of voices on each edition is intended partly as a contrast to the echo chambers and loud opinions so readily available elsewhere. But it also reflects a determined effort by the Court to offer employment and, in a year when freelancers have suffered enormously, to throw a spotlight on them and demonstrate actively the collaborative nature of live art.

“We’re not going to solve anybody’s financial problems with this project,” says Featherstone. “But it’s paid and it’s hopeful. I wanted to create a piece of work that meant every single person that worked at the Royal Court was necessary for its delivery. It needs all of us.”

That instinct to work experimentally, and collectively, reflects another significant factor of the 1930s living newspapers. They “broke with conventional naturalistic storytelling”, says Cosgrove. The Court’s new venture will offer experimentation, 2020-style, including a digital online version for audiences at home and scripts available for anyone wishing to read or perform them.

The willingness to consider new working practices and address priorities has been one of the brighter aspects of this dark year, suggests Cosgrove — not just in theatre, but beyond. Living Newspaper could perhaps inspire wider debate, not least about employment.

“The pandemic might produce some new, quite radical ways of thinking about art and culture. Theatre can bring ideas right into the public space in a very energetic way.”

“We’ve got to try and get back to theatre at its core as a civic social art form,” adds York Loh. “I think we need a theatre for hard times.”

This is an extract from a longer piece written by Sarah Hemming published in the Financial Times on Friday 4 December 2020. It has been published on the Royal Court’s website with permission from the Financial Times. The full article can be found here.