Searching for Play-Doh

James Bingham, Irish National Opera

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Back in the 1950s, the future for Kutol Products was looking pretty bleak. Their flagship product of wallpaper cleaner was becoming redundant as the usage of coal in households fell rapidly, thereby removing the issue of soot build-up on walls. Remarkably, the company turned around its fortune through the help of Kay Zufall, a nursery school teacher and relative of an employee at Kutol, who read an article about how wallpaper cleaner can be used in modelling. Its non-toxic properties were ideal for children and thus Play-Doh was born.

There are countless examples in history of companies radically changing their output, not simply to save their own business but for the wider benefit of their society. Think of General Motors in Detroit during the Second World War, rolling out the most ambitious munitions production line in history. Even today, countless small gin distilleries are manufacturing hand sanitizer.

As the performing arts sector face arguably the biggest crisis ever in the form of a global pandemic, there are lessons we can learn from these examples. Whilst it is right we should continue to pressure governments for more substantial relief packages, I remain cynical that nations who didn’t previously value the arts are going to change their mind now.

In May, at the digital Opera America conference, Douglas McLennan identified two current schools of thought in the arts sector: ‘restorationists, who believe something bad has happened and we just have to survive to get through it and back to normal, and opportunists, who understand things will be forever different in some very important way’. Arts organisations can’t survive only with a purely restorationist approach. Focussing a company’s resources on simply attempting to produce work in the way we have done in the past is fruitless at best and reckless at worst. The performing arts needs to find its own Play-Doh.

I don’t have the answer for what this Play-Doh will look like, but it might be something radically different from what we see as being an arts organisations core remit of producing art. Arts organisations are powerhouses of creativity and innovation. This is an industry that sees people of different vocations collaborate to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The arts can challenge audiences and promote conversation. It can be a cathartic experience, an emotional journey or an escape from reality. These abstract ideas are aspirations we need now more than ever. The arts sector has the experience and resources to realise this, but it has to redefine how it gets there.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the age of large-scale productions and mass gatherings are forever gone. That experience is too magical to discard so carelessly. As a matter of fact, Kutol products actually sold Play-Doh to Hasbro and remained in the hygiene business, which they’re still working in to this day. The search for Play-Doh isn’t a life raft taking us to a new and far less appealing world. It’s the chance to discover a whole new way of creating and interacting with one another. It could be the birth of a completely revolutionary idea.

Where on earth does an arts organisation start looking for Play-Doh? There’s no better place than an organisation’s outreach programme. Ultimately, outreach is about prioritising one particular question: “how can my organisation be of further benefit to the communities it serves?”. 2020 has unquestionably been a devastating year for the Global community. In response to this, many organisations have asked themselves that same question and have responded with generosity: takeaways offering free food to healthcare workers or theatres streaming past productions for free. Just the very act of staying at home is for many, not an act of personal safety, but a concern for the safety of others. Organisations should view their outreach departments as a foil for asking how they can benefit their communities as society slowly begins to heal. It’s through this exploration and experimentation that we might just find the arts sector’s Play-Doh.

This article was written as part of Traction, a Horizon 2020 project that will use new technology to explore opera co-creation for a social transformation. To read more about Traction, please click here.