The Search for Sustainable Theatre

2005

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We are still in the early stages of seeking out new audiences for theatre and drama. As audiences decline across the country save for musicals and tribute shows, social Darwinism plays itself out at the heart of our “industry” much to the delight of the funders and promoters who look on as an ever increasing number of “actors” and “artists” spilling out of night-class and weekend drama schools, alongside the more traditional institutions, fight over the small resource available.

 

As tiny pubs with upstairs theatres charge over £1,000 per week to rent a space, groups pay for three weeks in the hope of a Time Out Magazine Review which could make or break them. It breaks most – both financially and spiritually. At best, the few remaining winners shrug and say “that’s how it is these days” and at worst, rub their hands with glee at the failure of their often talented fellow artists.

 

A small set of collusions in the higher resourced metropolitan centres and larger theatres owned by publishing companies and speculators, recycle the small band of “talent” freezing out the majority who pay a few hundred pounds to crowd around the mythical honeypot that is Spotlight Magazine. This directory, this tome of wishful thinking is about a foot thick and contains tens of thousands of beautiful people, all trying to look ideal, all actually experiencing the grim reality of agents who get them little or no work at all.

 

On the fringes are the pockets of traditional excellence – small initiatives and groups, upstairs in regional pubs or art galleries running studio theatres and developing “artistic policies” to woo the arts council to part with some of its smaller pots of cash, and to make a self-statement of vision and integrity.

 

These are the last bastions, trumpeting renewal, full of initial energy and hope, their artistic policies serve more as castle walls to keep people out. They are warm and welcoming as they try to build their loyal audience, hostile and suspicious of the “competition”. They become small cults, akin to the religious cliques described on paranoid FBI investigated cult sites. Their artistic policy is their credo, dogmatically adhered to, they trumpet inclusivity whilst seeing difference as something either of lower quality or “outside the castle walls.”

 

Over ten years I have watched these groups fall upon their own swords, not because they are evil and get their come-uppance, not because they deserve to. They are often places of brilliance and true talent; of good heart and intention. They fail for this reason: Their idealising of themselves blinds them to the community around them; they simply fail to understand that the quality of “quality” is its diversity, both in the present, and over time. And, of course, they are blind to the situation that has befallen UK theatre. There simply aren’t the audiences any more. There isn’t the critical mass of audience to sustain them in the long run. And there funding simply isn’t there any more. A local audience can be found for some performances but to sustain a venue needs the support these days of alcohol, food, and a vibrant community. Some theatre companies have found that alcohol and food can soon decide that certain kinds of theatre are not conducive to good digestion.

 

They last for a few years and then, if the venue they rent doesn’t fizzle out its enthusiasm first, the initiative itself does. It’s a genuine shame. I wish it didn’t happen. And the myopic march goes on.

 

We’re trying something different. We believe the audiences are there. But we have to go out and find them. New venues are to be found, waiting to be filled with great work; in auditoriums and halls that are not part of the traditional theatre world. Street theatre has recognised this a long time ago. Installation art knows all about it. I wandered not long ago the cobbled street that runs along the middle the enormous European Headquarters of Boots plc near Birmingham. A 24/7 building with shops, cafes, places to show films and meet in groups. Where is the theatre I ask? Where is the theatre? We’re coming.

 

We are bringing new audiences into the theatre and taking theatre to new audiences, into the places where people often spend evenings and weekends and, just as in any town or city or village, seek cultural enlivenment in those evenings and weekends. We play to organisations, to companies, to social groups and communities. Funding and resources are released. What lights us up is the response, the freshness, the lovely cautiousness and the warmth of welcome. The debate, the discussion. Sometimes we fall flat, sometimes we soar.

 

We do not compromise our art in these new spaces, though we have learned so much about the changing world from these communities and organisations. Some are large enough in scale to be towns, even cities. Some of these lands exist in virtuality. One interesting observation is this: A new naturalism is emerging, neither mundanely real not pantomimely crazy. We are finding new forms and styles.

 

We are rethinking skill and talent. Soon the world of the Matrix will be rapping at our virtual and real doors. As traditional curtains fade and stages creak, we are broadening our horizons and finding new inspiration. We sense no loss, though a certain nostalgia for the old hierarchies still mimicked so sadly and badly by the little and large establishments, combined with a well hidden Thatcherite social Darwinism, as their defensiveness finally destroys them. Few of these groups will survive beyond 2010. It’s painful to see this little institutions acting as parodies of the old forms, little hierarchies with Victorian rights and wrongs.

 

Our work often meet with confusion, bemusement, frozen stares, judgement and often hostility from the little upstairs castles and cults. We wish them well. We stop ourselves becoming a cult through our engagement with his new audiences; our doors are open to this new paradigm, we take our cue from it. Our restlessness comes from an emerging story. Things change from day to day. Dogma cant easily take hold in a hyperturbuent world.

 

The institutions, large and small are crumbling. They paint up their spaces, buy some lights and get a grant for a computer. It’s sticking plaster on an old wound. We would share what we have found with them. The potential synergy between the old and the new is huge. At this stage we are like beginners. And we realise one thing about the theatre world we are trying to enrich and enhance; it isn’t that they don’t want it. It isn’t that they cant have it. It is simply this; the poor buggers simply don’t get it.

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