Resisting the slimy spread of oil money through our theatres!
At a time when the world should fear much more the heat of the sun and the furious winter’s rages, BP is conspiring to distract us from the naked truth of climate change and with its daring folly burn the world.
Companies like BP are using their enormous wealth to purchase a veneer of social responsibility and respect by sponsoring the arts – to present themselves as caring and necessary players in society, and thus dampen down public criticism.
The Reclaim Shakespeare Company aims to challenge this head-on, by taking back the cultural spaces that BP has appropriated, and using them to fight back against the company. We were formed in response to BP’s sponsorship of the World Shakespeare Festival and the RSC as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Through a series of “Guerrilla Shakespeare” interventions on BP-sponsored stages and at a Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum we have turned oil sponsorship into a hot topic within the theatre world.
Alongside our on-stage performances, we are working with theatre professionals to promote the idea of ethical sponsorship. Inspired by the dropping of tobacco sponsorship by numerous sporting and cultural institutions we look forward to the day when our playhouses adopt policies that ensure they cannot be used as “responsibility fig-leaves” for polluting multinationals.
Times are tough. Ay, there’s the rub. But all that glisters is not gold! We wish to free the RSC from the grasp of this smiling damned villain. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
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How we reclaimed the Bard from BP (Update May 2014)
I got some theatre vouchers for Christmas this year. If I wanted to go and see a Shakespeare production that was not sponsored by an oil company, I could. That was not the case at the start of 2012.
Back then BP were proclaiming their sponsorship of the year-long World Shakespeare Festival so pretty much every professional Shakespeare production in the land was in some way also acting as an advert for one of the most destructive companies in the world.
BP like sponsoring the arts. It’s an easy way to distract the public from their massive contribution to climate change and increasingly terrifying activities in the Canadian tar sands, Gulf of Mexico, Russian Arctic etc. Following the Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company could have been a further gem in their clutch of British cultural jewels. But this has not happened. I think the Reclaim Shakespeare Company is at least partly responsible for this. So, how did we do it?
The concept was simple: BP was trying to colonise our playhouses. As people who love theatre and hate BP’s insanely damaging practices, we would carry out mini-rebellions – direct actions against their PR – in the very theatres they sought to conquer. On stage. Without permission. In iambic pentameter.
We gathered to read The Tempest. Our first ‘performance intervention’ was to take place at the RSC’s production of the play in their Stratford-upon-Avon base that April. Inspired by the play, a two-minute speech was created for two performers.
On the big night we casually wandered into the auditorium, showed the usher our tickets, and at around ten minutes before curtain-up, we dropped our long coats, revealed our Jacobean finery and took to the stage. Our performance received much laughter, much applause and the odd boo. We wanted to spark a debate – and we had succeeded!
The group stayed and talked to the audience as they left the show, handing out leaflets and even collecting BP logos which audience members had ripped from their programmes following our on-stage battle-cry of ‘Out damn logo!’
That performance was the first of nine that the group went on to carry out during the World Shakespeare Festival. We performed in London’s West End, at the famous Roundhouse theatre, at the Shakespeare exhibition in the British Museum, twice more in Stratford and again – with an extraordinary 200 people taking part – at the British Museum to mark the close of the festival.
Our audience stretched from those in the theatres themselves to the world beyond, via videos shared on facebook and twitter and media articles describing the events. The Independent newspaper ran an editorial suggesting Shakespeare would have supported our campaign; on Channel 5 The Wright Stuff held a debate entitled ‘Should BP back the Bard?’ In the theatre world high-profile actors and directors were giving us support: Mark Ravenhill and Mark Rylance spoke out against corporate sponsorship.
We had hit upon a tactic that was directly disrupting our target’s attempts at positive publicity but which they found it almost impossible to stop. Aside from barricading the stage, what could they do?
As the Festival neared its end, we recognised we had a victory on our hands – there have been no further plays sponsored by BP.
We have since gone on to broaden our scope – forming the Art Not Oil coalition last autumn, targeting Tate Britain in January and the British Museum’s BP stained Vikings exhibition in April resulting in extensive coverage of the whole campaign on Channel 4 News.
What next for the Reclaim Shakespeare Company? We refuse to allow oil companies to continue despoiling our beloved galleries, museums and theatres and we have some new tricks up our frilly sleeves. To join our email update list and get involved in future interventions, drop us a line at [email protected].