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Features Published 15 January 2014

The Genre Question

Duncan Gates on classification, story-telling, and ‘the genre of theatre’.

Duncan Gates

So you’re out with some kind of very fluid extended friendship group, maybe at a sibling’s birthday party, or work drinks with the colleagues of your partner. You’re meeting different and interesting people and you get chatting to one of them about what you do.

They show a definite interest, asking how you ‘do that’, whether you’re working on anything now. It’s refreshing for you too to be talking about what you do to someone outside the industry.

And then they say: ‘I don’t really watch long-form cinematic drama, either in cinemas, on DVD or on TV. It’s just not something I do’.

This conversation never happens.

But I would suggest that you, or someone you know, has had this exact conversation with someone about theatre.

“Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you …” – Noël Coward admits himself owned in a telegram to Agatha Christie when The Mousetrap breaks Blithe Spirit’s record for the longest-running West End play. 

According to Wikipedia, this is every film Warner Bros released in the US in 2013, broken down by genre as basically as possible:

Gangster Squad – action crime

Bullet to the Head – action

Beautiful Creatures – romantic fantasy

The Factory – thriller

Jack the Giant Slayer – fantasy adventure

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone – comedy

42 – biographical sports

The Great Gatsby – historical drama (adaptation)

The Hangover Part III – comedy

Man of Steel – superhero

Pacific Rim – sci-fi monster

The Conjuring – supernatural horror

Top Cat: the Movie – family comedy

We’re the Millers – comedy

Getaway – action thriller

Prisoners – thriller

Gravity – space drama (see me IMMEDIATELY if you think this is sci-fi…)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – epic fantasy adventure

Her – sci-fi dramedy romance (yes, it is rather having its cake and eating it)

Grudge Match – sports comedy*

(*If you don’t already know, ’Grudge Match’ is basically a movie about what would happen if Robert de Niro’s Jake LaMotta had a fight with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. It sounds thrillingly appalling.)

On one level you can look at this list and think ‘wow, how reductive, pigeon-holey and awful’.  However, I suggest that a glance down a list such as this does one very important thing – it enables you to filter out what you’re not interested in seeing. And the beauty of it is that any other person list will do the same thing, only differently.

Film, music, novels, poetry – pretty much all art forms ‘get’ the modern idea of genre and embrace it. The only exception is theatre, which doesn’t seem to have moved on since ‘Comedy’ and ‘Tragedy’, and the occasional children’s show. Why?

It’s true, genre is a marketing device, saving a lot of time and money by identifying the most relevant possible consumers and promoting the product almost exclusively to them. It’s classic vertical segmentation. However, across the market of ‘anyone with any interest in watching movies’ (which could, not unfairly, be said to be ‘most people’) it ensures there is something of notional interest to everyone. Warner Bros *has* to do this – it might have leanings towards certain genres more than others, but ultimately it has to explicitly provide something for all areas of the market, or it’ll consciously alienate those it doesn’t cater for.

I suggest that Warner Bros has always done this – have you ever gone through a phase of refusing to see a movie because you don’t like the artistic attitude of the studio? Is there a Warner Bros movie in your top 10? Yeah, there probably is. They’re good at their job, which is making everyone in the world excited at some point about seeing at least one of their movies.

Because ultimately, most people (‘consumers of culture’, if you want to be more specific) don’t care whether a movie is made by Warner Bros or not. What they care about is the type of story they happen to like and how well it’s made. In the post-20th century world of art which can be ‘delivered’ by in wide range of accessible forms, why does the precise form of a good story matter any more? How many people do you know who ‘don’t read books’ – but use a Kindle on the way to work every day? How many people do you know who don’t own a TV – but watch TV programmes religiously on iPlayer, Netflix, etc? Why does NT Live even exist?

This isn’t to say that form doesn’t matter *at all* – they matter enormously to the makers themselves, and that’s how good art gets made. It’s all completely fair to say that ‘consumers interested in exploring form are a market segment like any other. My contention, however, is that theatre assumption that the consumer is driven by the form, rather than the story, is why anyone ever struggled to sell any art they ever made. It unhelpfully sets theatre up as a genre against other art forms in a ‘fight’ that quite simply it’s not capable of winning because its reach is so much less.

To me, the ‘What’s On’ page of most producing theatre buildings or companies reads like a massive piece of horizontal marketing, identifying fans of ‘the genre of theatre’ and targeting them – to the exclusion of those who don’t like the genre.

I write plays. I want to excite and inspire you all with the plays I write. I especially like writing them for theatre. I don’t identify as a fan of ‘the genre of theatre’. ‘The genre of theatre’ is what creates non-theatre-goers. These are the people who think that all theatre will be like Peter Hall productions from the 60s and 70s and are pleasantly surprised when it isn’t. We might also call it ‘straight theatre’.

West End musicals don’t count – they ARE a genre. You can tell they’re a genre because they have specialist professional training, separate awards and a customer base which is generally considered to be separate to that for ‘straight theatre’. I’d suggest that West End musicals (yes, including Les Miserables, which for most people is a musical first and an RSC show a distant second) are successful because they’re marketed as a separate genre.

I’d also suggest that massively successful non-musicals such as The Mousetrap and The Woman in Black still tonk modern ‘straight theatre’ in the West End (including poor Noël) precisely because they’re not ‘straight theatre’ at all. Notwithstanding that they’re both very well-made and well-produced pieces of stagecraft, they thrive because their target markets and audience bases are primarily fans of, respectively, crime and horror. They go to see a detective  or ghost story and come out saying how well-made it was – which I believe is kind-of the point of working in theatre, right? A similar principle can be applied to West End adaptations – the familiarity of a source text surely works in a similar way to the familiarity of genre labels.

So, do we just spend the rest of our lives making whodunnits and spook shows?

OMFG YES PLEASE PLEASE PICK ME I’LL START

No – even with my own stated prejudices, that would obviously be reductive and shit. But there’s often a reluctance to classify theatre as ‘horror’, ‘rom-com’, ‘sci-fi’, or ‘thriller’ when you’d happily classify your favourite films in the same way.

Segmentation of theatre isn’t even a threat – it’s something that’s already happening. I suggest that the increasing over-ground-ness of ‘theatre-makers’ (Will Adamsdale, Tim Crouch, Melanie Wilson, Daniel Kitson or take your pick from any number of others) is opening up theatre to the idea of cross-disciplinary classification with e.g. storytelling, poetry, puppetry. What I find interesting about this is how many of these artists self-identify as theatre – or rather, don’t. Very few, or so it seems to me, promote their own theatrical shows as ‘theatre’ – indeed they focus on story and themes and attract audiences who, like them, enjoy the stories and themes without having hang-ups over exactly how the form is classified. You could say that ‘straight theatre’, as a genre label, has an image problem within its own industry.

Theatre isn’t a genre, just like music, film or novels aren’t genres. Theatre is something that is adaptable and interesting enough to appeal to everyone, if it gives itself a chance. Everyone is a potential theatre-goer, just like everyone is a potential book-reader or TV-watcher. Genres are nothing but types of stories, and genres will survive as long as humans have different brains, think different things, love different things.

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Duncan Gates

Duncan trained on the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and under Stephen Jeffreys at RADA. He's been longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize (2013), the Verity Bargate Award (2013), Channel 4/Touchpaper TV's Coming Up scheme (2014) and the Old Vic New Voices TS Eliot Commissions (2014). He's had plays on all over the shop. In an ideal world he'd be an anthropomorphic bird who solves supernatural crimes.