Devoted and Disgruntled 2024

So, what is to be done about theatre and the performing arts? This is a question that has been asked 18 times at the Devoted & Disgruntled conference organsied by Improbable, “pioneering improvisers, theatre makers and conversation facilitators”. Described as a self-organised conversation which uses an approach to meeting called Open Space Technology, a few hundred people from theatre and the performing arts in the UK come together and create the agenda around what they want to talk about and explore over the three days of March 16th-18th 2024 at The Warehouse in Holbeck, Crosby St, Leeds.

With the first two days tending towards the exploration and discussion around the invited question, the final day invites a shift towards action. Ultimately what happens on those days is in the hands of those who have come, the “right people” who chose to be there, who are invited to be at ease with the time they have over those days, to use their mobility to move around and never be stuck where they don’t feel they are being productive, to let things start and end when they need to and to be prepared to be surprised. And, of course, whatever happens, well that was what was supposed to happen! These are the descriptions and invitations around the behaviours that tend to happen when people collectively self-organise a conversation around a question they are restless to address. That’s “Open Space” in a nutshell.

So, on day one, a “market place” opens as participants sit in a large circle and create and curate the agenda that will make up D&D. This year is at Slung Low’s The Warehouse in Leeds. It moves around from year to year. I will be there for FringeReview and go whenever I can because , quite simply, it is one of the most important conversations about theatre and the performing arts in the UK each year.

The D&D web site contains a number of invitations going into the event. Artistic Director of Slung Low, Alan Lane notices “when I  see the daily, pressing, urgent need not only for hope but the wonder that artists are sometimes the only people who can provide it. It’s a responsibility providing that wonder, driven by hope.”

For me, D&D has always been a hopeful gathering. It is focused on a classic “what is to be done” question, not just the well intentioned hot air of a pow wow, but also a how wow.  John R. Wilkinson, Associate Director at York Theatre Royal and Co-Founder of The Calm Farm issues the following invitation: “Let’s engage in conversation, exchange perspectives, respectfully disagree, and create a supportive environment for one another.” And he proposed a few key questions we might explore together, including: “What strategies do we need to implement so that artists feel empowered to navigate the complexities of a pluralist context with objectivity, compassion, and humility? How can we foster diverse perspectives and encourage exposure to a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds? Do we need to promote more self-reflection and encourage artists to examine their own biases, privileges, and assumptions? How can we cultivate empathy, encourage artists to listen actively, and seek to understand different perspectives, fostering compassion in their work. How might we create spaces for open, respectful dialogue and feedback where artists can exchange ideas, receive constructive criticism, and learn from those whose values they disagree with?”

We do indeed live in conflicting times. How do we open space for the “other”? That’s a big question for me as well.

Adam Bambrough, Founder and CEO of Wellbeing in the Arts, observes “there is a mental health crisis in the Arts and a workforce at its lowest ever point psychologically.” He concludes “the time is now to look at how we can better support the people we work with…and ourselves. Whatever our job title or discipline, be it Artistic Director or freelancer, wherever we are in the UK. “ and invites us to address “how we can improve mental health and wellbeing support across our industry, assess what is currently being done, and share how our own mental health and wellbeing is being affected by the work we do”.

 Sophie Slater, Assistant Production Manager, Leeds Playhouse, poses a significant question: “As a society we need to make rapid and drastic changes in order to save our world and create an environment where both nature and humans can survive. In theatre there are already exciting initiatives and projects happening but this requires a lot of change and hard work so we need to ensure we take care of the people creating this work rather than just adding more on to people who are already overworked and burnt out. We are having lots of discussions around this but how do we actually make the changes needed? What are the practical solutions to this?”

Such challenges and questions draw me back (or forwards) to D&D each year. I’ll be there. You can still book here.

Improbable honour the approach to self-organising the event with care and love for the method, “Open Space Technology”. Accessibility runs through the living veins of the happening. That makes it truly inclusive. It is a true sym-posium in contrast to many top-table driven conferences where the content is pre-decided as is more of an im-posium. It is genuine empowerment and people there feel it. You can feel it in the movement in and around the space. It tends to result in a genuine conversation.

So, there is no programme or agenda when we start. Within an hour or so, the agenda on the all is usually full to bursting. And there is always space for me. Perhaps this article sounds a bit like an advert for Devoted and Disgruntled 2024. It is. In this case the rhetoric and the reality tends towards being the same thing. D&D addresses an important question, a “doing” question as well as a “what” question. If that question, posed at the top of this page, is one you are passionate and restless about, move the your mobility in the direction of Leeds as soon as you can.