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

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?