Over the last few weeks, as the plight of theatre in the UK has grown increasingly uncertain and precarious, a group of artistic directors, producers, directors and critics have been discussing theatre and its multitude of roles within communities. Who is theatre for? Why does it matter? What is it capable of? What do we stand to lose?
Natasha Tripney: What do you see theatre’s functions in the community as being: a cultural hub, a place of education, a place of entertainment, a social space, a forum, a repository for a city’s stories?
Paul Smith: I believe that, at its best, theatre is where a community come together to better understand what it means to be human. To grow together, to learn together, to heal and hurt and feel together. The methods of engagement change but the function remains the same; what are we, us, here going to do about all of this then?
Alex Chisholm: Theatre is an ecosystem. There are a multitude of functions for theatre in communities. With BD Stories, which Freedom Studios recently took to community centres around Bradford, we felt we were the guests of the event not the hosts. Maybe that’s the important thing: whatever form of theatre you’re doing, it’s being done with people, not just to or at them.
Tracey Sinclair: I admit it’s only recently that I have started considering theatre in these terms at all. (I think a lot of people in the industry have a tendency to forget that for more people than they would like to admit, all they want from ‘theatre’ is to see a good show and not get gouged too much for interval drinks.) So perhaps what’s required is not just a question of asking what theatre can and should be, but WHY we expect it to be those things? We don’t lay the same kind of expectations on our local pubs or cinemas or music venues, in the main. Why should theatre be different? Do we need to ask that before we ask anything else?
Paul Smith: I guess there’s something here about what the word ‘community’ means then when applied to theatre-going, as I’d count audience members having a good night out and sticking around for a drink afterwards as a vital part of successful ‘community theatre’. I think often in theatre we attribute worthiness to the word ‘community’ when actually it’s just as important, if not more so, that people feel welcome, feel included and have a good time.
Francesca Peschier: There is a lot of conversation at the moment about building-based theatres that feels a little ‘us’ and ‘them’. On one level I understand it. If you are an artist and you are struggling then it’s going to be hard to invoke empathy for the salaried employees sitting in a shiny heap of chrome and polished wood in a central postcode.
However, I think that having theatre spaces equals this exact responsibility: those spaces should be civic, engaged and community enterprise spaces. A building-based theatre should feel more like a community pub, but with politics. If you are part of your community then you won’t think of it as outreach. You’ll think about the people you know and what they need. They might not be the same people that come and see all of your shows, but maybe they come to the Love Island Screening (go Bush Theatre) or Dungeons and Dragons Sundays in the cafe. If the people you are ‘trying to reach’ already trust the building or know someone who goes there, then they are more likely to trust you.
I’d like to know what we’d like to see in a theatre that isn’t a show?
Tracey Sinclair: One of the best things about the Marlborough Theatre in Brighton is that it IS a pub. So you can go to a vibrant, queer space without ever even knowing there is a theatre there if you want to. And I would love to see more of that. I’m always disappointed when you go to a theatre and the bar only opens an hour before the show, like you aren’t welcome if you aren’t seeing something there, which can also create the idea that only a certain type of visitor is welcome.
In an ideal world – and, again, I recognise there’s a cost to this – I’d like theatre spaces to be open to all, even without the commitment to spending money in them. Spaces where people can sit and read a newspaper or work on their laptop and, yes, have a wee play area for kids so a parent can put their feet up or breastfeed a baby or just sit in peace without someone hovering over them expecting them to pay five quid for a latte to justify them taking up room.
Paul Smith: It’s also about connecting how a space feels alongside its programming and other activity. Not all theatres need to be all things to all people, but every single one can invest time and energy into inclusion and helping people to feel comfortable spending time there.
It has to be responsive to the place you’re in. It feels important that a theatre plugs into a civic imaginary – a shared understanding of what a city is, what it likes, how it feels about itself, the presence of its history – and combines all of that to create an inclusive space, which is able to both celebrate and challenge it.
I’m interested in how we can engage with people through theatre but away from theatre buildings. I’m keen to challenge the notion that everything must end in new people flocking to theatre spaces, when so much of what I believe is so brilliant about theatre can be applied in so many situations and spaces. If ‘community engagement’ doesn’t have to result in people literally attending a theatre in order to be seen as successful, then how do we measure impact?
Tracey Sinclair: I have seen some really good examples of theatre in non-conventional spaces. But I would also argue that buildings are important – vital, even – and that for some people that’s part of what makes theatre ‘theatre,’ and what makes it pleasurable, in the same way that going to a nice cinema is better than watching something in a good widescreen at home with your mates. If we discard that, we risk losing something precious.
And also to get back to the point of ‘asking people what they want’, I see a lot of ‘doing it because we can’ site specific theatre and it’s often cool in theory but ignores the fact that the reason a lot of unconventional and rarely used spaces are rarely used is because they are less suitable for audiences of mixed needs. It makes theatre less accessible, not more, and is too often about theatre-makers wanting to show off how ‘out of the box’ they are than actually about engaging an audience.
Natasha Tripney: I agree with Tracey about buildings, particularly in terms of access and comfort; not everyone wants or is able to perch on rickety, splintery benches or squat on floor cushions.
Going back to Frank’s question, I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard Sennett’s ideas of ‘disordered’ spaces, and how they might apply to theatre. One of the things about Storyhouse that I love is that there are no clear boundaries between the library, cafe, bar. In the UK I think we’re really bad at creating spaces where people can linger without having to buy some food or a ticket to something, spaces in which people can study, sit and read for a couple of hours, take the kids, or just go to escape a less than ideal home environment.
Matthew Austin: One of the Swiss artists in the showcase at Summerhall last year asked (I’m paraphrasing here) why all British theatre-makers seemed to think they had to do the work of the state. That our industry was behaving more like social workers than artists. I felt torn about that. On the one hand understanding art’s potential to actually realise social change helps me remember some of the reasons why I do what I do. But on the other hand, I feel strongly that we absolutely need to create a space for artists to make work that is weird and conceptual and niche and that perhaps pushes the artwork forward a bit.
In answer to your original question Natasha, for me, right now, the words ‘social space’ seem to chime most strongly. Perhaps this is because it’s the very thing we’re all missing at the moment. It’s a place (wherever that place is – a building, a street, a car park) where we come together to share stories. And in doing that we connect with each other. If we’re changed by that experience or if we learn something, all the better. But community happens when we’re able to assemble in whatever way is right for that particular art form.
Natasha Tripney: I think that’s key. Community is, obviously, not a homogenous thing. Communities are neither passive nor static. There are communities within communities and it’s possible to belong to more than one community at the same time. The beauty of theatre is that for a couple of hours the audience is its own community. This generates a sense of solidarity – I remember watching a show at the Globe in a downpour and being struck by how no one just left: the audience in the pit just popped carrier bags on their heads and kept on watching. There was a real sense of people being in this together, which was reflected in the atmosphere. I’ve felt something similar during Middle Child’s shows. A sense of the show speaking to everyone in the room. There’s also a radical potential that comes when people are gathered together. Given where the country is politically do you think there are roles that theatre could play in its community(s) that it isn’t already? Or does this simply place extra pressure on an already under-pressure sector?
Paul Smith: That atmosphere and togetherness is theatre’s superpower. Aside from the obviously terrifying financial issues going on right now, I think there’s rightly a lot of worries around how and when that one-night community will realistically be able to return and what we’re left with in the meantime. At Middle Child, it’s liveness that drives us and I think we need to be fighting to (safely) keep that alive as the world changes and not compromise the very thing that often makes theatre so special.
Tracey Sinclair: I have watched virtually no theatre online in lockdown, and part of that is because it doesn’t offer any of the things I personally value or enjoy about theatre. Not to disrespect any of the teams putting work out there, often in the most difficult conditions, but I just feel it’s not giving me anything I need right now. I go to the theatre to be in a room with people having a live, potentially spontaneous, communal and to some extent simultaneous experience. Being in the same space at the same time is a crucial part of that experience for me – in the same space as both the audience and the actors. Watching online – even live tweeting along – just doesn’t appeal to me in that way. So if theatre is reduced to online content, does it not risk just becoming an inferior version of TV? What does it offer that isn’t already being offered by films, TV, even YouTubers and TikTok if it isn’t a sense of communal audience rooted in one place and time?
Paul Smith: In my opinion, this current situation is where everything that theatre does so brilliantly outside of making shows becomes more important than ever. We can’t gather people in a room to watch a play, so how do we find ways to maintain and build communities in a way that best uses the skills we have? We do it all year round with youth theatre, workshop programmes, artist development. So in this climate how do larger funded organisations rally to support isolated individuals and smaller companies? How do we protect against losing an entire generation of artists? How do we continue to have a positive impact on would-be audiences?
I’m also interested in the statement we can make in putting faith in the ideas and vision of artists and supporting them to imagine the future. At Middle Child we made the decision to use this enforced pause to commission new artists and new ideas, because whatever happens in future we’re going to need them. There seems to be this acceptance that theatre will need to revert to the known and the established, but I hope more than ever that we re-evaluate everything we do and build a better, stronger and bolder industry.
Alex Clifton: Matthew Arnold’s version of culture is the one we battle at Storyhouse, and in the wider UK cultural sector I think. Nineteenth / early-twentieth-century cultural institutions reflect a version of culture Arnold codified in Culture and Anarchy: culture is a restraining force on anarchy. This is the opposite of how many of us understand our roles – to empower communities as creative, individuals as artists, in order to unlock their imaginative capacity for stirring up corners of creative anarchy. We want to help drop flashes of garlic into the custard of social discourse. That’s definitely not what Matthew Arnold thought.
Cultural institutions have been crafted to house his reverence for culture: in dark, in silence, against white walls, with social distance between classes and individuals: space for an artwork’s inherent power to stir individual souls into coherence. Storyhouse celebrates culture as anarchy. It’s noisy, busy, with blurred boundaries. A place to make a mess.
We read culture in the anthropological sense: culture is shared values, beliefs, behaviours, languages, which define a community’s good, true, normal and real. The everyday rituals that either bind communities together or define their opposition. These rituals are our focus, inside our cultural centre.
We try to put people and communities at the centre of culture. Books, plays, films and art are only as important as their ability to connect people. We seek to empower a creative democracy: to make people feel that they are part of something bigger than them – for which they are partly responsible. They can make and remake their own culture.
We’ve connected four services: library, theatre, cinema and cafe spaces fall into each other. There are no lockable doors; 50,000 books bind the spaces together. We’re one storytelling centre, which by virtue of this integration is open 364 days per year, 8am-11pm (because a café needs to open for breakfast; a cinema can’t shut until late). These are the longest opening hours of any library in the UK.
Integrating the services means integrating the people. Library users, theatre audiences, cinema goers, coffee cruisers all have to interact as they access their services from the same staff (all trained in each area: you get a coffee from the same person who would direct you to the transport section or sell you a ticket).
We try then to do the same with the work we make: professional and non-professional integration, as we commission local communities to make their own work in their own images. Each year we work with 116 different charities to programme our spaces; 128 different community groups meet for free each month. Within formal partnership agreements, we let local organisations perform, present, promote their communities in Storyhouse.
Mostly, that sounds like professional and non-professional artists singing together in the kitchen, acting on our stages, running language classes or hosting specialist-interest groups… we are here to make cups of tea and clear rooms to empower community creativity. If that sounds like social work, well, excellent!
Matthew Austin: When I try and think about ‘theatre’ as one singular blob, my brain goes funny. And then when I think about what people who don’t work in the industry picture when you say the word ‘theatre’, it makes me want to give up entirely. Like Tracey says above, I wonder if people would even associate the word ‘theatre’ with the word ‘community’.
I reckon most people don’t realise that there’s a kind of theatre that doesn’t happen in theatres – a lot of the work that we do at MAYK doesn’t happen on a stage. I’ve spoken to quite a few people who are now regulars at our events who said that before they came to see one of our shows they didn’t have any idea that that kind of theatre was out there. We took a young person we’re working with to see When It Breaks it Burns at BAC in February and he couldn’t believe that there was a kind of live performance like that.
We still have a job to do to challenge people’s assumption that if it isn’t a proscenium arch show, then it’s a dreadful audience participation nightmare. If people knew the breadth of the work that was out there then the art form would be transformed
I also think we need to remove the theatre vs Netflix binary. Both about stories, admittedly, but one is passive and the other is active. When you go to the theatre, even if it’s a fourth wall play, you still have to work a little bit as an audience member. It’s more of a commitment. You don’t have a remote control.
Celebrate the diversity of the art form. I don’t subscribe to the ‘burn down the buildings’ narrative. There’s room for the work that MAYK does, and Middle Child, and for big buildings too. Our job as practitioners who work in formally diverse ways is to challenge the inherent conservatism of the big buildings. Persuade them that once they’re through the firefighting phase of this crisis that being radical with their business models and imaginative with their programme will ultimately secure the future of the art form. I’m terrified that what we’re going to end up with is a bunch of regional theatres programming The Cherry Orchard and Twelfth Night with big names because that kind of programme will bring in the cash. If we’re going to live with social distancing for a long time, there’s a real opportunity for us to be able to use those big old buildings in a different way.
Alex Chisholm: One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet, and is a driving force behind the Arts Council’s strategy ‘Let’s Create’, is that subsidised theatre has been paid for by the majority through taxation and the lottery but primarily benefits a minority; 40% of English households according to Audience Agency figures (which I have some reservations about) and the majority of them are white, well educated, and older. Same was true for audiences of online theatre, but I suspect that’s changed in the last couple of months. Now of course that’s not true of all theatre – some of my frustration is that companies like Freedom Studios’ data gets lost in these models as we don’t perform at traditional venues and our audiences don’t fill in those bloody forms. However, it is true overall that theatre as a sector needs to get better at working with and for communities and people it doesn’t already reach. It’s about justice – why should people pay for an art form that isn’t interested in them and doesn’t represent them? But it’s also about having brilliant, interesting art and culture.
I’ve argued long and hard with artists in Germany and Netherlands that the best theatre is created when engaged with the full range of experiences and people, as audiences, as artists. How can people become artists or audiences if they haven’t experienced theatre in their school, their community centre, their street, and now maybe their mobile phone, or their home? Some of that is about having great, welcoming, accessible buildings. Some of it is being with people in their spaces. Even in the digital space. Not everyone has to be everywhere. Which is why we need a thriving, connected ecosystem of theatre to make sure between us all, buildings, companies, artists, individuals, theatre can be part of everyone’s life in whatever way fits best.
Tracey Sinclair: One final thing I’d like to raise is that often what is missed is the fact that a lot of people actually do like and get value from the kind of theatre that is too often seen as the norm to get away from in these discussions: and, yes, sometimes that’s the regional theatres programming the Cherry Orchard to bring in the money. I’ve had conversations with people passionate about bringing some challenging, form-breaking performance to underserved communities while in the same breath being snotty and dismissive about ‘traditional’ shows – with the implication that any audience that enjoys them doesn’t know any better. It’s operating on what people should want, not what they necessarily do want. To revisit Matthew’s point about Netflix vs theatre not being a binary, I think we also need to stop seeing the existence of (and the enjoyment of) more traditional plays and venues and performances as a negative to be fixed.
If we approach things with the idea that people who just want to see a familiar name off the telly do an Agatha Christie play are somehow lesser, not cool or just don’t know better and are just a necessary evil so the cool shit gets funded, (and it is Theatre’s role to Educate Them To Appreciate Real Art), we exclude a huge swathe of people. I come from a very working class family who basically never set foot in a theatre except for the annual panto, and to my mind, there’s nothing wrong with that. And if that panto trip leads some of the kids to think, hey, I might check out more shows here, then great, but it might not. But they still pay their taxes – to revisit the point above about the fact that much of the theatre is funded via taxes – and they still deserve that to be a tradition for them that they enjoy and feel welcomed at.
Not everyone wants to be challenged all the time by their entertainment. There are few enough spaces in the world now where older people can feel safe, entertained and comfortable. Why shouldn’t theatre be one of them? We’re going to be a society with a lot of isolated older people in only a couple of decades – shouldn’t we also be thinking about how that is going to look?
I’m not saying at all that is what is happening here in this discussion, but I have seen it happen in the wider debate of ‘where theatre goes next’. If we create a dialogue where different audiences are seen as competition (with the implication that some are ‘better’ or more worthy than others), we’re not expanding what theatre sees as its community, we’re just replacing one group with another that we happen to like better. That’s why I think Alex’s point is so important: we need a thriving and varied ecosystem that adapts to what people want and all the myriad and sometimes conflicting ways theatre fits into their lives and communities – not just the bits that suit one particular view on what theatre (and its community) should be.
Paul Smith: There’s absolutely a place for more traditional theatre and therefore ‘more traditional’ audiences. I do, however, hope we manage to avoid prioritising preserving that work and those venues over those seen as riskier or for a more ‘niche’ audience. In many ways, the people who enjoy the Big Name off the Telly Doing a Play They Know audience should be seen as a niche audience in the same way as a new writing audience or a performance art audience, but in this country the traditional work is often talked about as the norm and anything else is seen as a risk.
Will that inherent traditionalism and conservatism manifest as we imagine the new normal? I hope not. As we move into an uncertain future I hope we as an industry fight just as hard and invest just as much in the risky, the weird, the offbeat, and the unknown as we do the established, the traditional and the status quo.
Naomi Obeng: My question is – is there anything fundamentally wrong with a theatre or theatre building appealing and catering for only a certain section of population? To me the answer to this question is where you really get into the nitty gritty of what community means in relation to theatre and what a theatre is in relation to its physical surroundings.
I certainly agree that no demographic should be thought of as lesser or not as cool than any other, and I also question audiences that are demographically homogeneous. When I saw A Number at the Bridge in March, it was like I was back in 2014 in terms of audience homogeneity and I felt very much out of place. I sat there like: I’m a literal theatre critic, why do I feel like I shouldn’t be here?
A Number isn’t a show just for a white, older people, it’s a show that everyone would get something out of. That’s how you know that something’s gone very wrong in a theatre building, in my opinion. Storyhouse and other buildings that make themselves open in community-oriented ways are so brilliant and where the future lies.
I love that Paul mentioned creating and supporting artists to imagine the future creatively. We’re so blessed with a medium that can really be anything. That’s something that theatre will not lose – through being digital, through having smaller audiences and though having fewer resources. We have such a huge plurality of ways of telling stories. It’s that innovation that needs to be allowed to flourish at times like this. It’s really frustrating that theatre-makers are given so many boxes to tick just to be able to get some money to make work when, as history shows, the future isn’t contained within the boxes of the present.
There are lots of improvements to be made to accessibility in theatre that have been highlighted further by this lockdown era. Do you actually know who your community is and are they all visible? Is there something fundamentally preventing them from engaging? When some of these theatre spaces and experiences aren’t accessible to wheelchair users, to neurodivergent audience members, or to people with invisible disabilities who might need adjustments to have a good time at the theatre, then that’s a huge failing. Theatres can’t be everything to all people, but they can try harder to be something to more people.
For many people of my generation, finding togetherness and community online is second nature. I’ve found just as much community in liveblogging a TV show on tumblr with strangers as I have in being part of a live theatre audience (probably more to be honest). Obviously, these are not qualitatively equal, but I really do think that interfacing with the digital can be a positive and momentous thing for theatre. This is such an important time to imagine and to dream. We don’t have a responsibility to uphold traditions just because they’ve always existed.
Paul Smith: I think this speaks of a need for a holistic revolution in how we think about, talk about and make theatre in this country. It’s not just how the building feels, it’s not just governance, it’s not just programming, it’s not just ‘oh this is who our audience are’, it’s not just risk aversion, it’s not just we don’t have enough money – it’s a cocktail of all of those things and many more which, sadly, more often than not combine to exclude more often than they include.
It does feel to me that digital has less of these long-established barriers for many people. However, the question I keep coming back to is what can theatre spaces learn from digital spaces rather than imagining a world where we spend more time on screens, rather than together in a room?
It’s so hard having this conversation at a time where the very existence of the theatre industry is up for debate. We’re all terrified of what the future looks like and of who might be lost along the way. There’s no easy decisions and unless the government step in with a meaningful rescue package then lots more sad news is just around the corner. BUT with that said, we can’t give up the fight for a better world and we can’t lose the ground that has been fought for so hard in terms of a more representative and inclusive industry. Yes, let’s do all we can to survive but then we have to immediately get to work on truly representing the world (and the communities) around us.
Atri Banerjee: When I left the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where I was a Trainee Director, one of my leaving presents was a copy of Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Feel Free. The first essay is a piece I really love called ‘North-west London Blues’ in which Smith talks passionately about the libraries and bookshops in Willesden Green, making a valiant case for their preservation in the face of government and local authority cuts; she cites the example of Helen, who then ran Willesden Bookshop. Smith describes Helen as someone who, with her book selection, “gives the people of Willesden what they didn’t know they wanted”.
It’s a phrase that has really stuck with me and I think is how I like to think of theatres too. A theatre’s programming and endeavour should “give the people what they didn’t know they wanted”: both in the work on-stage and in the way it engages with its communities (plural). I totally agree with Tracey that theatres shouldn’t operate in any high-minded fashion on what they think audience-members want, rather than what they necessarily do want, so I don’t mean this in a paternalistic or patronising way. Rather, I think that when theatres are properly, genuinely embedded in its communities, then they can be like Helen in her Willesden Bookshop, by providing a varied programme offering diverse perspectives and introducing communities (audiences, participants, artists) to a range of inspirations and provocations, made with the community fundamentally in mind.
I’m feeling the pain that Paul has voiced above. It’s been quite hard for me to think about the future when it’s all been feeling so uncertain and wobbly. Further easing has been announced across the UK, with the notable absence of theatres. Who are forbidden from producing live performance – which would almost be funny, if it weren’t so desperate. Theatre Royal Plymouth announcing redundancy consultations feels like a massive loss to the ecosystem.
However, I want to offer a note of optimism. I take heart in the brilliant campaigns going on at the moment to lobby the government, like Freelancers Make Theatre Work and the Public Campaign for the Arts. And fundamentally, I do believe that theatre has and will have an important role to play in the definition of what “community” is in the wake of this pandemic, and how we, as practitioners, audience members and volunteer participants alike, can come together to heal, in what will be massive collective trauma.
I’ve been reading Bessel van der Kolk’s outstanding book The Body Keeps the Score, in which he talks about his years in psychiatry diagnosing PTSD. It talks about the role that the dramatic arts can have in therapy. So it’s not just a thing of sharing art and stories together, but there’s a genuine medical, therapeutic function there.
The Exchange, particularly under Sarah Frankcom’s leadership, was a marvellous example of giving the people what they didn’t know they wanted. I was very fortunate to work on shows including Our Town, which incorporated the Young Company, Elders Company, as well as a rotating selection of town choirs. Grover’s Corners, in our version, became Manchester and in its tale of grief and recovery, this Manchester was quite clearly Manchester healing in the immediate aftermath of the Arena Bomb, which had occurred only six months before.
It’s been a powerful model for me of what theatre can be, and how I imagine it can be post-coronavirus. I’m particularly interested in how we tell the stories of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
I also worked on The Mysteries by Chris Thorpe. Each play, based on a different city in the north of England, was written and eventually rehearsed with members of the respective communities – we performed in churches and town halls in each of the six venues. We incorporated participants from the communities: a choir in Whitby, bell-ringers in Stoke. The final play, Manchester, was also a response to the Arena Bomb and the myths Manchester creates for itself. It was a beautiful project which showed the sort of ambitious community-minded thinking the Exchange is so good at: and of course, tying into a legacy straight from medieval times, with the original mystery plays themselves created for and by a community.
I’m really interested in how we dissolve the boundaries between work ‘on-stage’, and ‘off-stage’. I made a show last year called Utopia with the Young Company at the Exchange, which we devised. It gave this group of 15-22 year-olds a chance to think about the idea of a perfect world, using Thomas More as a springboard, but more generally, to think critically about the world they lived in today, as often disenfranchised young people. The Local Exchange project aims to get the work of the theatre out of the theatre and into communities. With Utopia I was really interested in how the models in which we work as theatre practitioners, both with professionals and non-professionals, can indeed model a more “utopian” society.
I love what Naomi said about the future not being contained in boxes of the present. There’s a notion in utopian thinking of prefigurative conceptualising, that you actively imagine and create change in systems rather than waiting for the change to occur. In other words, be the change you want to see in the world.
For more thinking on different models for theatre, read Exeunt’s dialogue series on European Theatre.