Speech: The Future of Theatre Lies in the Community

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The below speech was given at the Theatres Trust’s Conference on Delivering Sustainable Theatres on Tuesday 12 June 2012.

When I was invited to speak at this conference a part of me thought, what have I got to offer? I don’t work in a theatre in a traditional sense; I comment from afar, in a virtual world online I write blogs and reviews, I attend theatre but I don’t shape it. I like to dream up the possibilities of what the future can be in my sleep, but I don’t make the policies, I don’t sign the contracts or produce the next big thing. Instead I create worlds from my words, where I hope to pull apart the ideas of what our theatres are making and how we can begin to imagine what the future will look like.

In my work on A Younger Theatre, a website dedicated to giving young people under the age of 26 a platform for their views on the arts we encourage people to think the impossible. To challenge, provoke and inspire those our own age and those who help to make theatre possible. So when I was sitting in the Theatres Trust’s office being asked to think what the future of theatres might be, my imagination took flight. But underneath all these utopian ideas were one single factor I couldn’t ignore. I hope to relay this today.

If I’m being completely honest, our theatres, with their cross proscenium arches and blacked out studio boxes will look just as they do now in some 10 to 50 years time. The materials we use may differ, they’ll be more ingeniously created and formed to build with, they’ll be more regimented by the building legislation and policies for carbon free emissions. But in their purest sense, as buildings, the theatres of the future will look just like they do today. There will be walls, a ceiling, a floor, an auditorium will be formed, a stage space marked out, and a place for the audience to sit will be made. The fundamental relationship between spectator and player will exist; our theatres will remain exactly same.

For me, to discuss sustainability is to look at not what happens within our theatres or on our stages, but rather to look at the shifting landscape that happens beside them, in our communities and on our high streets.

It is my belief that where our theatres become sustainable is through engaging the community within which they sit. The notion of ‘the community’ is, and here I speak honestly, a scary prospect. We live in an age where we find more comfort engaging with those in our community through an online medium than by meeting them face-to-face. Where the asking for a cup of sugar has been replaced by angry online rants about neighbouring noise and fence parameters. Yet we also live in a community where we are faced with substantial cuts to local authorities, libraries, post offices and indeed theatres themselves are threatened, and we mourn the loss of such services and are encouraged to fight for them.

When I speak of the need to look to the community, I’m not talking about engagement projects or outreach work in a traditional sense, I’m talking about the need for provoking, stimulating and allowing communities to see their theatres not as spaces of entertainment but of spaces of need. A need driven from the heart and blood of communities that propels them, draws them, even sucks them into needing the existence of theatres. It is not about false ideological visions that our theatres will suddenly be the divine answer to the big questions of life, but we have to give our venues back to those who need them most. Theatres have to offer a solution to a community in need, so that services can be continued, communities developed and our theatres seen as a vital lifeline for everyone. It seems that we’re always fighting for the role of the arts and thus the role of our venues in society. Now is the time to take ownership and let communities find their need for us.

This need is drawn from the need for localisation within our theatres that serve a community. When library services, medical services, employment services and postal services are being cut, our communities have to look towards theatres to not represent this savageness through dramatising on the stage, but to offer alternative spaces for these services. We have to make the theatre what the green grocers and the baker was to the high street, serving the community with a need and demand.

The high street itself is ultimately dying, taken over by the shiny soulless supermarkets and concrete super-giants like Westfield, that offer the ‘super’ of the supermarket experience. These giants are creating what Mary Portas in her independent review of the high street calls the “immersive twenty-first century urban entertainment centres” and we, as traditional entertainment centres, need to learn a trick or two from them. Housed under one roof you’ll find the experience for all the community, from luxury and bargain shopping to entertainment in cinemas and stages. As our high streets are dying these super giants are attracting the masses. They’re not just offering an entertainment centre though, they’re also developing facilities that serve the community beyond food and clothing. Did you know that in five of the supermarkets operated by Sainsbury’s you would also find a NHS GP surgery? Conveniently located to combine shopping with your visit to the GP and sponsored by Sainsburys through partnerships or rent free spaces. Here the supermarket chain is filling the need of the community, and doing so whilst cuts to services are taking place.

Now I’m not saying that every theatre needs a GP surgery, an opticians or dentist, but if we are dreaming of what our future theatres could look like then we have to look at what our communities will require in years to come. Theatres have to respond to their local community so that the sustainability is more than just keeping a theatre operational, it’s keeping it at the centre of the community and fulfilling a need far greater than what it currently does. We have the opportunity to respond to the sustainability of the high street, and the sustainability of the community, which feeds directly into our audiences.

There are of course many theatres who already operate with their local community, and I’m sure many present today would argue they do to. I would argue, though, that engaging the community through clubs or socials that hire or make use of foyers or meetings rooms within theatres is not serving the community. I believe we need a community who look towards theatres as not just spaces they can use, but spaces they need. Spaces that respond to their needs, and spaces that challenge and evolve with the changing shape of the high street.

In the future:

I see our theatres responding actively to the dying high street in partnership with the community.

I see theatres as the new high street.

I see theatres that invest in local properties, local business, and local people.

I see theatres that support local services, that house post offices and libraries.

I see theatres that invest in energy generating devices that then power the rest of the street.

I see theatres that become play spaces not just for actors but for everyone.

I see theatres that respond and engage directly with the need of the community, from old to young.

I see theatres that are at the centre of communities

I see theatres that develop local growth and local economy.

I see theatres as the central point in society.

If we invest in the community, so that the social role of theatre is integral, is drawn from an undeniable need, then we give our venues a far greater sustainability than just housing the arts. We can discuss at length how venues can be more sustainable to the environment, sustainable in this economy, but if we don’t consider the sustainability of those who use them, who are our community, then we’re just another building on another street.

I know that I’m speaking of some abstract empowered notions that don’t offer any real concrete solutions, but I speak them out of a fear.

A fear driven from seeing the empty buildings of our theatres during the day.

A fear from seeing empty cafes and empty foyer spaces.

A fear from seeing theatres closed and abandoned.

A fear from seeing spaces that are alien to those outside them.

I’ve seen the high street closing and I’ve seen my local services cut.

I’ve seen us fight against cuts to the arts.

I don’t want to see us fighting for a community that should already feel at home in our venues.

Sustainability for me is less about resources, and the fabrics of building materials. It’s about those who need our theatres, and in turn for theatres to need those people.

So when you’re talking about sustainability and making changes that will affect more than just the artistic shape of a building, I urge you to think of the community. To think of the interests and needs of local communities so that we can meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.