Features Published 19 May 2021

Why don’t I feel more excited about returning to the theatre?

As theatres reopen, Adam Welsh thinks about how little has changed – and about the potential fpr digital theatre to signal a different future.

Adam Welsh

Adam Welsh in No Future. Photo: Harry Elletson

Right now, all across the country, theatres are reopening their auditoriums to the public. I should be excited, but I’m not.

An entire workforce that has been grounded for over a year is suddenly able to have an income again. That’s exciting. But will I be rushing to go back to the theatre? I’m not sure.

I am a theatremaker. That’s what it says on my email signature anyway. Deep in lockdown 1.0, along with the rest of the industry, I wrestled with the idea of what I wanted my life to look like when the ‘rona was over. I wasn’t sure theatre would be a part of that future. Or indeed if theatre would have a future. I typed theatremaker jobs into a google search during lockdown 2.0, and a salaried job for a theatre practitioner came up… which, at the height of the second wave felt like a mirage in the desert. I swiftly realised that the kind of theatre practitioner they were looking for was a scrub nurse. Different sort of theatre. Maybe more important. I didn’t apply. I left my acting agent, decided to become an agent, a special agent, for MI5. I still haven’t heard back. I’m not sure I would have been any good at that anyway. You’re not supposed to tell anyone. I would want to tell everyone. I always struggle to know what to say when people ask me what I do. Especially now. Maybe I’ll do a reverse MI5 and say I’m a spy, as a cover story for being a theatremaker. Not many people know what a theatremaker does anyway. And it’s never been as much of an illusive and enigmatic job as it is right now.

People keep asking me if digital theatre has a future, as if I’m any kind of authority on the subject… I’ve just made one digital show. Will it be my last? I can’t tell. I’ve never been much of a visionary. Whatever little forward thinking I possessed before the pandemic has well and truly escaped me by now. With a combination of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder which affects my perception of time, and 14 months in a Global Pandemic, I can safely say I feel fully stuck, nay, buried in the present moment.

No Future. Photo: Harry Elletson

For my digital show No Future, I worked with local community members in the borough of Camden to thrash out the ideas of the piece. As well as reading through my early drafts together, we often discussed the future of theatre in our weekly sessions. One participant Kate Harwood (78) said: “I have always been aware of the disparity between those able to afford the ticket prices and those who could and would enjoy it. I feel that it’s the middle classes, or educated classes, who actually access it and my worry has always been, from when I was young, that somehow it has to involve everyone.”

With the rise of digital theatre, one thing has become resoundingly clear. Presenting digital work on a ‘Pay What You Can’ basis has the potential to make theatre more accessible, wholesale. I don’t want to get into what constitutes theatre here, because frankly it’s boring. But for me, making digital theatre in a lot of ways has been preferable to making theatre for an audience in the room. Working with film, I was able to consider every moment, and sometimes every frame. Unlike live theatre, I could see what the audience would actually experience, watch it back, and make it better.

Also, with ADHD, I find live audiences distracting. When you’re looking at me on stage, I want you to like me, and to earn my applause at the end of the night by giving you what I think you want. When you’re not in the room with me, I am able to focus on what is important artistically and therefore give you what you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it.

Also, because digital work is so nascent, you can sort of make up the rules as you go along. And this is what is thrilling to me. With digital work, you are also liberated to be truly inventive because it is basically a new form and everything is to play for.

So when I say I’m not excited about the theatre’s reopening, it is in part because I think that what we started to discover with digital theatre suited me better. Not to mention that when I scroll through the upcoming programming of my favourite venues, to see what shows are finally happening, I’m simply not moved by any of it. I want to be moved. Moved off my sofa, out of my comfy flat and onto a tube to finally sit for three hours in a dark room full of strangers. During the 1603-1613 plague, the theatre was closed for 78 months. When they came out of that time, Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. All I can see advertised now is more of the same stuff that we did before. Literally the same in some cases. Maybe 14 months is simply just not long enough…

Seriously though, why bother going all the way to the theatre, when you run the risk of getting trapped in the centre of the row, listing all the other things you’d rather be doing in your head? At least with digital theatre, if it’s c**p, you can just duck out 1/4 way through and no one will even know. Or you can pop the telly on, make a cup of tea and go to the loo without it being such an enormous deal.

So when you ask me if digital theatre has a future, I get confused because in my head I’m thinking, “what, you mean after all that, live theatre is actually coming back?”

I’m not saying this to dissuade you from going to the theatre, because theatre needs audiences now more than ever. I was just thinking that, you know, with all this time we’ve had, that maybe we’d come up with a few ways of making it better. Like how are we going to make it more inclusive and more relevant to a wider section of society? How are we going to lower our carbon emissions? How are we going to be less reliant on celebrity culture to draw audiences in? How are we going to make work that’s both accessible and genuinely experimental, that makes people think and feel new things about the world, that points us towards our human potential?

I say all of this not because I don’t like theatre, I say this because I know what theatre can do. I remember watching an experimental show from a Norwegian company at the Barbican about 10 years ago. I hadn’t a clue what was going on, least of all because it was in Norwegian, but it really didn’t matter. When I surrendered to the not knowing, something in the show told me about who I was. It made me realise that I have no idea why I’m here on this tiny planet, how I came about, or indeed what it’s all supposed to mean. But more importantly, I realised that the group of people I was sitting with didn’t have the answers either. And that felt profoundly reassuring to me at that moment. I wasn’t alone and I realised that sitting in a theatre.

But although theatre is a place for togetherness, it can still feel niche. Like a club. And not everyone is a member. My wife said to me this morning she hopes a friend of ours gets an acting job she was auditioning for “because it’s always better going to the theatre when you know someone in the cast”. I agree, it is always better, but maybe that’s the problem. I’ve worked in theatre for 13 years, and the amount of shows I’ve been involved in where it’s just my mates or my family in the audience makes me think that maybe it isn’t worthwhile. For me anyway. Maybe that’s saying more about my career though than the state of things. I continue to explore other career options…

If we’re happy for theatre in the UK to become a bit like contemporary oil painting, only to be enjoyed by a select few people, and certainly not essential, then let’s carry on as we are. But if we want to reopen our doors wide and embrace a nation in desperate need of healing, let’s change the conversation about what theatre is for, and start having the conversations that really matter in the buildings that have been waiting for such a long time for us to return. And let’s keep making digital work, because what’s clear to me is that you don’t need to make people leave their homes in order to have extraordinary cultural encounters, you just need to have a good idea!

Adam Welsh’s No Future is available to watch online via Camden People’s Theatre until 20th May. More info here. Or read more about post-pandemic digital theatre in Fergus Morgan’s article, What’s next for online theatre?

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Adam Welsh

Adam Welsh is a writer, performer and sound designer. He is co-founder and associate artist of Obie award winning theatre company Dead Centre. His debut show There but for the grace of God (go I) was developed with CPT and ARC, Stockton and most recently seen at Soho Theatre.

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