- Shocking the SystemThe Arts Council, the British Council, and the Paradox of Cherub Theatre Company
On its surface, this article is the story of the Cherub Company, London, which between 1978 and 2003, under the leadership of Andrew Visnevski, premiered nearly forty professional productions of British and European classic plays in London. Many of those productions subsequently toured nationally, and several were sent overseas by the British Council to tour internationally to countries including Germany, Spain, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The company won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival for its production of Kafka’s THE TRIAL (the production’s official title) and had several national theatre critics as champions, especially B. A. Young of the Financial Times. Visnevski, the company’s founding artistic director, is now ensconced at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts as the head of the academy’s MA programs.
However, this is not the story of a company that is widely recognized for its successes, and, in fact, it is currently one of the few published stories of this company in any scholarly or critical record. In this article, I will provide a brief historical accounting of the company and its work, though my larger purpose is to expose the process by which it (and potentially other companies like it) has been excluded from the historiographic record. Cherub’s case prompts a reconsideration of the connection between “success,” financial stability, and historiographic importance, for its history is still accessible through archival research and interviews, and those records provide a window into the way artists either [End Page 73] become canonized by the cultural field or are forgotten. By telling the story of a company that almost no one has ever heard of and whose work has largely been forgotten, I will begin to unpack the motivations that drive canonization.
Despite Cherub’s exclusion from the historical record, an examination of the company’s work reveals much about the human biases inherent in processes of artistic validation, especially validation connected with receiving a monetary subsidy. Cherub produced much of its work over its twenty-five-year history without any consistent government subsidy or corporate sponsorship (which is arguably a success in its own right). From August 1979 to May 1982, Cherub gave nearly four hundred performances of eleven different productions at theatres all over Great Britain and Europe. Audiences were receptive, newspaper critics generally positive, and touring-house producers satisfied.1 But agencies responsible for funding artistic work were mixed on whether Cherub’s work was successful, and a key part of Cherub’s story is how two government agencies looked at the same company and saw something completely different. Its lack of success with the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB), the primary agency providing subsidies to artists within the United Kingdom, meant that Cherub could never grow into a stable company with a consistent group of actors and a permanent home, which was its goal. Faced with rejection after rejection for its subsidy applications to the ACGB, the company had little of the funding needed to develop new productions, and the resulting instability caused its productivity to slow in the mid-1980s. Visnevski constantly had to recruit new young actors and technicians willing to work for what Cherub could afford to pay instead of being able to work with actors already accustomed to his style, and the company began to focus on remounting old productions for overseas touring.
Unlike the ACGB, the British Council (BC) was happy to send Cherub to tour abroad, and though it wasn’t able to pay for the company to develop new productions to be in seen in Britain, its largesse served as a lifeline for the company. The BC was part of the Foreign and Commonwealth department and had been created in the mid-1930s “to promote abroad a wider appreciation of British culture and civilization,” and it regularly funded international tours of existing productions by companies like Cherub.2 These two agencies saw Cherub completely differently, and that’s partially because Cherub was, and is, a notoriously a difficult entity to pin down and define. Because Visnevski sought a...