Theatre is not a club, so why do we make it feel that way?

posted in: Blog | 14

Attending Secret Theatre’s Show 5, A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, at the Tricycle Theatre with my boyfriend Jack I got more than I bargained for than an entertaining night. I’ve seen all of Secret Theatre‘s shows to date, and caught A Series... when I was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year. It’s a piece of theatre that brings me great joy.

Jack meanwhile doesn’t work in theatre, he’s a personal trainer and sport’s conditioning coach. He’s a culturally engaged guy; he used to do acting at school, he loves art, he goes to the cinema. I took him to see A Series… because I wanted to introduce him to a different style of presentation of theatre, plus, for me at least, it is a fun show. The last theatre outing Jack and I had was to see Pomona at the Orange Tree Theatre. So, that’s the context.

On the return journey home from seeing A Series… Jack and I had a lengthy discussion about what he thought about the show. It was a tumbling conversation, where labels like ‘abstract’, ‘script’, ‘improvisation’ were analysed for their meaning but it also threw up some massive, and I mean massive, issues. I feverishly tweeted about our conversation which you can read below…

Yeah, okay, it was a discussion about engagement and experience but this was the first time I had sat down with someone as a non-theatre goer and calmly asked them exactly what they thought about a piece of theatre and why they do or don’t engage. We’ve done lots of discussions with people through Dialogue (the company I co-run with Maddy Costa) and their engagement with theatre, mostly through the Theatre Clubs we run, but this was really the first time I’ve questioned someone at length about their experience.

“A contemporary theatre club that I’m not part of” was the biggest punch in the stomach, followed quickly by “I’m a small fish in a big pond” and “I need to know what I’m meant to be getting from it, to be told how to understand it”. Now Jack is a culturally engaged guy, I’ve already mentioned he used to act and likes art and stuff, but to hear him say with a slight embarrassment that he didn’t feel like he was part of the club and that, essentially, his views were not valid because they weren’t informed by knowledge was devastating.

Is this really what us as a theatre-makers and engagers are promoting through our work? Is this how theatre is seen from non-theatre goers? I’ve written extensively about the barriers of theatre for young people through my writings on A Younger Theatre over the years. The main obstacle being rules and just getting over the threshold in the first place, but I have a feeling this is true for most non-theatre goers. Age is irrelevant. If we’re giving off the impression that theatre is a club, in this instance Jack was talking specifically about contemporary theatre (a loose term, but we narrowed it down to theatre that isn’t a traditional play), then there is a much broader issue that we need to tackle.

It isn’t even that we need to tackle it. That suggests we need money, and we need those engagement officers and outreach people and then that just feels like box ticking for the sake of it. It feels like it is some other department’s issue. But what we do need to address is the fact that theatre just isn’t accessible for most people. It is a club. A club with rules. A club where we dress up and laugh at the gaiety of life on the stage. It’s tragic, fucking tragic.

For every person who says that theatre is a club we as an industry are failing them. For every person that feels it is not for them we as an industry should be held accountable. The Arts Council England should be held accountable for giving money to any theatre or company that someone says they can’t be part of ‘that club’. It is 100 days until the general election in England but in my eyes we’ve already lost battle. Cuts to the arts? What we deserve if we’re failing our potential audiences.

I’ve been fortunate to have been working in this industry for the last five years, but hearing someone that I really care about tell me that everything I do isn’t for him because we don’t allow him in makes me want to just stop. What’s the point? Seriously, what’s the point? The thing is, it’s not just Jack. At Christmas my dad made a flippant comment about contemporary art that has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing but he basically said he wasn’t educated enough to understand contemporary art, and here I just want to scream, because that, along with Jack’s idea that his ideas on art is not valid is not just a problem it is a complete breakdown of everything we do in this industry.

For the past 3 years I’ve been working with Maddy to break open these sorts of conversations in our work on Dialogue. I got a little lost for a while with it, but I’m starting to understand what it is we’re meant to be doing. We’re meant to be getting artists to see and speak to their audience. We’re meant to get artistic directors to speak to the people who sit in their seats (as a matter of fact it isn’t the ADs seats at all, those seats belong to the audience!). But most of all, we have to work with audiences, and I really think much broader, to see that theatre isn’t for us as theatre-goers, it is for us as a society.

So the question I want to end with is quite simply: How do change what we do, to ensure that theatre is for society and that no-one, and I mean no-one, feels left out of the club?

14 Responses

  1. Just to share my gut instinct to this… as a generation we are doing a huge amount to make art and theatre accessible- it’s far less of a club than it’s ever been- in my view the problem lies much deeper in how we as a nation are educated to digest and consume art in our lives. If art and theatre were held as vital and accountable subjects in our schooling, for everyone, whereby we all have a voice, then people will understand the point of taking risk in art and theatre? We shouldn’t stop making challenging work, however self indulgent it might seem, it’s an expression of ourselves, here and now in 2015. In my humble opinion.

    • Hey Joshua,

      Thanks for taking a moment to share your gut instinct, it is really good to hear.

      I think you’ve touched upon a point that I didn’t delve too much into but definitely felt the same. It is about a societal and cultural shift, one that works together to, as you say, make theatre – and wider still – art, more accessible and vital. I don’t know how we do that, but we have to start somewhere, and we have to ask questions and challenge those that are in a position to begin a shift.

      Your point about in 2015 being in a really good place for accessibility is true, but we can go further, I know we can.

      Jake

  2. I’m reminded of a time years ago I took someone to the theatre for the first time (they’re English but hadn’t even seen panto as a kid) and what they saw was Sarah Kane’s Blasted, performed by Graeae, the theatre company with disabled actors. And they did things like speak the stage directions as well as the dialogue, or sign bits, and the play itself is obviously quite an affront and their staging was very un-literal. And this guy really enjoyed it and talked about it a lot afterwards.

    I suppose my first reaction, and only reservation about your excellent and thought-provoking piece, is that you’ve taken one person’s reaction to one event and decided that theatre feels like a club. It may do. Or it may just do to him. Or it may be that the value he puts in you as his boyfriend upped the ante in what he felt he should get from it and didn’t.

    My own boyfriend didn’t see much theatre before he met me. He does get it (thought I tend to end up taking him to things ultimately he thinks are “ok” and totally failing to take him to things I think retrospectively he’d have loved (examples from the last year I think he would have loved and didn’t see include Mr Burns, and the Enemy of the People at the Barbican).

    And maybe theatre speaks more to some people than others. Some people like film more (hell, objectively film’s BETTER, right? But we both I bet see more theatre than movies).

    The fact is if you’re a theatre person, you’re going to like theatre more than you’re boyfriend unless your boyfriend is a theatre person.

    I sound complacent. I;m not. I wish everyone felt comfortable going to see the mad, the beautiful, the flawed, the incomprehensible, the impressionist experiences theatre offers and I too HATE the idea that it should feel like a club. But in this case it sounds like it wasn’t the venue or any other barriers in play. It was just his response to the piece, and perhaps to the sense of being surrounded by people like you who really got it or seemed to get it or who were experienced enough to not care if they didn’t get it.

    Maybe it’s the audience. Maybe that’s the problem 🙂

    • Hey Jon,

      You’re definitely not being harsh by what you’re saying, in fact, it is very nicely put and there’s loads that I’m sitting here and thinking and nodding along to.

      You’re right in many ways, this is just a perspective that I’ve focused on because it feels inherently personal to me at the moment. I do think, which is why I included the comment about my dad in the blogpost, that there is a wider topic that we need to think about. I don’t think it is an isolated opinion. I’ve heard several people, who would be deemed as non-theatre goers voice the same thing. It is why I keep referring to the societal shift, or cultural shift, because for me it is about this.

      Of course it is just one opinion, and yeah, I’m hung up on it, and yes you can take partners to countless events and shows and engage with them on different levels, but I still think we’re missing something. We’re clearly not doing something right if people are willing to say that something that has open access (okay, money does come into it, although some places have removed that altogether) is exclusive – a club – whatever you want to call it.

      I really admire what you’re saying though, and much of it rings true. Of course I wish everyone felt the same way I do about theatre, and I know that isn’t the case, and can never be the case (what a boring world we would live in then), but I do want people to at least feel it could be for them.

  3. Oliver Senton

    Part of the picture Jake, though it is only part of the picture, is that in our attempts to forge new ways of making theatre (that resonate with US) we are often embarrassed of telling stories, and embarrassed of entertaining. Theatre is essentially a populist form, from the Greeks and Elizabethans through commedia dell’arte and the Mysteries to panto and musicals – but some of it is also difficult and more demanding (which is fine, there’s room for us all). Also Secret Theatre is an experiment in itself, and not one which everyone’s liked. So as you say it’s okay not to like it!

  4. Jake it’s so commendable and welcome that you raise all this. It’s been my common experience that if you do try to raise these issues among those in the ‘arts and culture sector’ you too often get a disdainful and defensive reaction. The defensiveness often takes the form of accusing you of somehow decrying or disrespecting the ‘artistic offering’. Matters are worsened if, like me, you tend to use plain ‘general public’ language and you don’t know the language and perspectives you are ‘meant’ to use.

    In a related context, and related to my own work in the social enterprise field, I have tried to raise in fora and one-to-one scenarios the need to address the dangers if so much art and culture in Scotland is *so* dependent on state aid – then at the same time expecting to carry on in a condition of complete autonomy, or somehow with a privileged difference to any other sector dependent on state aid. That expectation of dependency-and-autonomy seems to extend to the supposedly commercial film sector, going by recent lobbying. There was a recent STV Scotland Tonight edition on the film sector. When I posed the question about state dependency on twitter during the broadcast, one response I got was very telling IMO. The response was a pithy “Oh eff off”.

    A similar attitude was articulated at the (excellent) open forum event during the Independence Referendum hosted by Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. It was entitled “Who runs Scottish Culture and who owns it anyway?” After hearing some eye-watering raw political rhetoric under this guise of ‘culture’, I asked if we were really being asked to accept that ‘Scottish Culture’ was all about the likes of decrying a long-dead right-wing Tory PM (Thatcher) and a since discredited war leader ex PM (Blair). One of the forum panel speakers literally bawled back at me “Yes it is” there then followed a rambling train about ‘revisionists’, neo-liberalism and such like. ( of which I’m necessarily not in sympathy with, but worrying if the answer to my question was, indeed, yes).

    So again, respect Jake for your raising the need for great objectivity and reflection and engagement with the realities of wider contemporary society.

  5. Interesting post, Jake. I wanted to reply because it stirred some strong feelings.

    1. Please Do Tap On The Glass

    I’ve joked several times that I don’t get stage fright because theatres are safer and more predictable than the big bad world outside.

    Lots of performance already takes place outdoors and in unconventional spaces, and that seems like an obvious way of making our work more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally set foot in a theatre.

    Can we imagine contemporary theatre buskers? A Forced Entertainment show in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester? I think we can.

    Question is: what do we lose / gain in the process?

    2. Let’s Roll Out The Red Carpet…

    An Audience Member enters a theatre from stage left. At the same time, a member of the Front Of House team* enters from stage right and welcomes Audience Member, improvising around the following with sincerity, conviction and a complete absence of condescension.

    FOH: “Hi! First time at our theatre? Welcome! Let us show you around. Here’s the bar where we run a programme of free events here every week. We have a kind of contemporary theatre book club with screenings of classic performances and chat about it afterwards. Yes, we’d love to have you down. Have you seen this company before? Ah, well let me tell you about them. It’s experimental work. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen this kind of work before, and it doesn’t matter if you think it’s not for you as we programme lots of different things. But here’s why it’s exciting. And if you enjoy them, you should really check out this company too.”

    * FOH could be Box Office, Bar Staff, Marketing Managers, Artistic Directors, Technicians, whoever is prepared to be an advocate for what they make happen.

    3. …But Let’s Not Be Door Mats.

    There are rewards in store for anyone who perseveres beyond the doubt and confusion of encountering something new, and not ust in theatre. We can encourage audiences to do that, but we don’t have the time to hold everyone’s hand through this process, and I don’t intend to water down the work I make for accessibility’s sake.

  6. After having a time to reflect on this conversation, I have come to the conclusion that this “problem” may be explained by group psychology. As a social psychology graduate myself, I thought I would look at this in terms of how to change behaviour and, therefore, why such behaviour happens to begin with.

    If you look at theories of group behaviour, you will notice that people tend to be led by the larger, majority groups rather than the smaller, minority groups. The majority groups usually create the socially normative behaviour patterns. The minority groups are often the groups that become labelled with stereotypes because they do not follow the normative behaviour. They can often be seen as outsiders or an exclusive “club”.

    Is this what is happening with theatre? I think it’s fair to say that the largest audiences occur in the West End (UK wise) and these shows tend to be traditional, non-contemporary, narrative plays which have a clear direction and story that the audience is expected the follow. Therefore, would it be fair to label this group of theatre goers as the majority group? If so then, by definition, the minority group are all other types of theatre goers, including contemporary and abstract theatre. A minority group which may, indeed, have attracted some stereotypes that Jake explains.

    Traditional, narrative theatre reflects our world today. In today’s society we are constantly told how and what to understand, what is right and what is wrong. To suddenly be thrust into an environment where there is no right answer….that’s scary and difficult to comprehend. It can be downright confusing! Where is the criteria to judge yourself against? The majority group of theatre goers follow these societal trends, the minority group do not. Is this why they become viewed as this exclusive club?

    This social psychology could be an explanation as to why such labels have been attached to contemporary theatre goers. Yes, funding is a problem, yes outreach may be a problem but the issue here comes deep rooted in people’s socially dictated behaviour.
    The issue of a resolution is a complicated one but I think this is deeper than simple funding and outreach. In order to tackle it, according to this theory, we must look deeper into the psychology of group behaviour.

  7. Very interesting post Jake! So often we all feel ‘excluded’ from the club, whether it be a theatre, or a sports event (I’m sure I’d feel the same as your partner if I was taken to a football match….) But the trouble is when the VENUE welcomes the exclusivity and sense of its own (self) importance.

    I once had a conversation with the head of PR at the Royal Opera House, and said to him that, as a (relatively!) sophisticated theatregoer (well, it is my job and I do around 5-6 times a week!), I feel intimidated still by going to the ROH. His answer? “I can’t deal with your psychological problems!”

    So, it was MY fault that the Opera House feels intimidating! A couple of years ago, I was at the ROH — for the Olivier Awards, as it happens — and seated next to the Reece Shearsmith. And he looked around and marvelled at how beautiful it was, and said to me, “I’ve never been here before!” Now Reece, too, is a sophisticated theatregoer — and a cultural figure in his own right — and for him to have never been here struck me as very revealing.

    I reckon that the venue is a club, and a lot of us feel VERY disconnected from it.

  8. Hi Jake,

    Interesting post…..

    By grouping work into “Theatre” and “Contemporary Art” the barriers are already set. – whereas in fact as a young person who has moved between the two I know that we are all “practitioners” who make “work”… Rather than being a club, I think we are all individuals – swirling around, making fleeting connections, always moving on to the next bit.

    the work is as specific as we are individual – diverse, fragmented and with a multiplicity of processes, aims and outcomes.

    Not all outcomes can be all things to all people but instead arise from the liberty to explore as we see beneficial, interesting or entertaining.

    One of (but not the only)Secret Theatre’s aims is to explore the limit of what we expect to see in a theatre space, to question, to raise questions…perhaps in your friend’s response they achieved this outcome? Perhaps in prompting this feeling of being left out they are actually trying to raise the same points as you are….instigate action like this blog…perhaps.

    As an audience member I think I still have a responsibility to engage with work by suspending my disbelief or existing reality, or doubts or anything(?) for a couple of hours…conversely I know I have had audience experiences which for whatever reason (boredom, invasiveness, lack of agreement with issues) that I have been totally turned off by. But this doesn’t mean that there is a club that wont let me in, simply that this one wasn’t for me….but there are another 10 things out there that are

    There will always be different schools of thought happening, interacting, conversing, opposing – but its through the liberty to go to the extremes of that dialogue that we as audiences have the liberty to access so much diversity…by making the main outcome of “not feeling left out” a necessity for all and any piece of work to get funded; we move away from a state of diverse dialogue and toward a state of homogeny.

  9. I’ve always thought there was a certain vicious irony in the fact that theatre is still seen as a rarefied, elitist art form, when at the same time I think that no other artistic discipline has done more to make itself diverse and inclusive. Perhaps we have failed, but at the same time I am not aware of any movement in, for example, the visual arts dedicated specifically to the aesthetic and moral perception of young people, or that has the same commitment to allowing the stories of marginizlied people to be told, and so on. Someone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

  10. Alex I’m sure you in no way meant (and I’m not suggesting your do) but the statement, ‘I think that no other artistic discipline has done more to make itself diverse and inclusive.’ in itself open to accusations of rhetoric and hubris… that is, unless there is the body of evidence to support it. Without supporting evidence it remains as personal and subjective opinion. Such opinion is perfectly legitimate, but, increasingly, it will not be sufficient if the sector is to continue to attract what it perceives as essential public funding.
    And that raises the wider issue of ‘evidence’ and the value and impact of theatre. IME there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm, a reluctance, even a hostility towards the creation and use of evidence of impact, social, social value etc. When I say ‘sector’ I’m also meaning the wider arts and culture fields. Most other sectors outwith Government, public services and the private sector have made great advances in the past couple of decades on the creation, measurement and use of evidence of engagement, outreach and socio-economic impact in promoting their public funding causes. Alongside that they have also created and developed business models giving them greater autonomy (many coming under the banner of social enterprise).
    There are exemplar examples of arts and culture organisation that have gone down this route, but they still appear to be the exceptions.
    I should say Alex that I share you belief in the commitment of the sector to ‘social good’, indeed, I suggest that the outreach and engagement work of the likes of the youth and community theatre activities of The Citz in Glasgow are second to none and of international quality (declaration of interest here!). I suggest then we need to accept and collectively address the challenge of collecting, collating an re-packing the success story for the promotion and greater furtherance of the work of the theatre sector in Scotland.

  11. This is actually much simpler to solve than many of these posts suggest. People feel theatre is a club because the bottom line is that theatre is about communication, it is about telling a story and this element is often given the least consideration by theatre practitioners. A story can be told in any way.You can take risks, be obscure, push boundaries, be fractured, surreal, insane even, but at the end of the day if you fail to communicate that story then it has no point. If you want to make theatre that makes no sense to anyone but yourself that’s cool, do it, we should all do it but without arts funding of course. Wonderful theatre that we don’t charge other people to come and see, that doesn’t make them to feel crap because they can’t understand it. Really good theatre makers are humble never forgetting what an honour it is to put their work before an audience. They don’t try to impress instead they dig deep into a place of truth to give their audience something back. Something to make them laugh or cry, make them think, argue, get angry or even vomit about. If you do it well then the audience doesn’t sit there wondering how they are supposed to feel, they just feel. Too many labels are thrown around expressionism, forum, political, contemporary, physical, meta theatre and so it goes on. There are only two real types of theatre, good theatre and bad theatre. Of course taste plays it’s part and always audiences will dislike certain forms of theatre, that’s always been the case but if they fail to understand it, that is totally different and artists have to be accountable. They should not blame education, or class, or none theatre goers, they should blame themselves for forgetting that the audience is the only reason they exist. Dawn@MR

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply to this Dawn.

      I’m not sure it is as straight forward as you suggest on the good/bad theatre front. If it is this then it is engrained in society and culture from years of bad theatre and it is going to be inherently difficult to get people to see theatre as anything but bad. We have a reputation for it and that won’t be easy to shake. For me it is about looking at ways in which work can appeal to audiences and those who make it going beyond the traditional routes of getting an audience through the door – those audiences being the ones who are already engaged. We need to find ways of being more open, more transparent and more exciting for those audiences who feel that theatre is not for them. Won’t be easy, certainly won’t happen this year or the next, but venues (and artists/theatre-makers) need to put the time and energy into cultivating their audiences beyond those who already attend.