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During the cold, dark months at the beginning of every year, hundreds of makers, writers, practitioners, producers, marketers, designers and lovers of theatre come together in a roomy hall in East London for Devoted and Disgruntled, run by the theatre company Improbable, to talk about their passion. D&D – as it’s affectionately known – is a chance for the theatrical community to talk, argue and think about anything and everything related to their practice. It’s held in open space, which means no one leads and everyone has a chance to have their voice heard, manifesting a forum which can be invigorating, stimulating and exhausting in equal measure.
D&D has been running since 2008, and now has well-established “rules”: “whoever comes are the right people,” for example, and “whatever happens is the only thing that could have”. Anyone can call a session and anyone can attend, which creates a varied and diverse array of topics. Unsurprisingly, there were many discussions about arts funding, a few about producing as a young company, a handful focussing on political art and a couple about education. At any one time, however, you can find a session which might be completely out of your comfort zone; last weekend, I popped along to a heated debate about sci-fi theatre, before turning round to see people “lemon jousting” (not quite what it says on the tin). The event creates a feeling of potential, and even if that impulse is never acted upon, the seeds at least are sown for future change.
But what is the actual impact of D&D? Does it have any influence beyond the people who turn up? Well, though the results may not be tangible or quantitative, at the very least it helps people to organise. In an “industry” which can feel lonely, competitive and disconnected, group gatherings like this one can help to bring people together and remind those of us who may hold views alternative to the norm that we’re not alone. Many projects, companies and groups have began life at past events, as individuals who believed themselves to be alone in their opinions discovered a network of people with the same passions and ideas.
There’s also the argument that, contrary to the trickle-down theory in economics, influence in the arts is actually “trickle-up”, which is to say the avant-garde and experimental work of today will become the mainstream of tomorrow (I’m not at all suggesting that theatres like the NT or RSC are “better” than smaller touring companies, merely that they have greater access to resources). In the arts world, those who are trying out new processes and thinking differently about organisational structures could well be the people who go on to run the major establishments in years to come. If it wasn’t for the likes of the Living Theatre in the ’60s, for example, it’s unlikely we’d see collaborations like those between the National Theatre and Punchdrunk. Events like Devoted and Disgruntled may not have real-world impact in the immediate future, but further down the line their ramifications are sizeable.
Indeed, the effect is probably more like a ripple than “trickle-down” or “trickle-up”. D&D drops a pebble at a relatively random point in the theatrical pond and allows the waves to spread out over time. True, the stone may not be dropped in the centre of the body of water, but its effects will be felt everywhere, no matter how minor.
Of course, it’s not enough on its own. Though D&D events are held all over the country and other organisations hold similar gatherings, they still only reach a minority of individuals involved in theatre. Naturally, those who attend will talk (and tweet) about the event after it’s over, but there are probably thousands of people working in theatre who have never even heard of it, let alone read a report. It’s the responsibility of everyone who goes to keep inviting people in, to keep fresh blood running through the system, and perpetuate an open and welcoming environment, all while continuing the good work done during D&D itself by implementing what they can in their everyday lives, both professionally and personally. Over time, then, we can start throwing bigger stones into far bigger ponds.