What is the Purpose of Theatre? Who is it For?

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Should theatre be a place of learning, entertainment or just for an artist’s sake? What is the purpose of theatre? Yes, it’s a loaded question, and yes, perhaps it should remain rhetorical. In an earlier article for Noises Off Dan Hutton suggested that student theatre should be a place to challenge and experiment without the restrictions and pressures of the industry. Hutton used director Marianne Elliot’s brilliant quote that theatre should not be “run-of-the-mill”. This should be seen as a provocation to student directors. Buck up and be “something… remotely different”.

This provocation, however, has clearly been waylaid in reaching the ears ofThe Twelve Dancing Princesses’ co-director Cassey Elizabeth North. During the discussion of her show yesterday she deflected the questions of potential feminist interpretations by declaring “theatre doesn’t always have to be about having something to say”. The reaction from those present said it all. Later, North explained the process of making the piece stating “if something didn’t work, we made it work”. If, as I have understood it, North’s idea of theatre-making is to direct with force, bending the work until it yields to her and co-director Joshua Patel, then we really are in a sorry state of affairs.

Theatre has to have a purpose, it can not just be for theatre’s sake, otherwise we’ll be creating self-indulgent, ignorant and dull work time after time. Theatre, whether we intended it or not, will always have something to say because the maker has chosen to use the medium to showcase their work. Theatre by definition is for an audience, the purpose is to co-exist in a space shared between maker and audience. There has to be intention that will lead to purpose. If you’re making theatre that doesn’t work, as North suggested, then it simply does not work, and you shouldn’t attempt to force it into a place it does not belong. This brings up the question of who you are making the piece for, yourself or the audience? If it doesn’t work, then surely you have a responsibility to your audience to accept that it is not working. Not to “make it work” against all odds.

If you’re making work without the audience in mind then what’s the point? Theatre-makers, directors or actors, have a responsibility to their audience. Everything, every-little-thing matters. So you might think that your theatre is made with nothing to say, and you might make your piece work regardless of whether it actually succeeds, but then we, as your audience, will respond silently. Why? Because you won’t have an audience to perform to because you forgot to make theatre for the audience in the first place. Theatre can not exist without an audience. (Do I really need to quote Peter Brook?)

Originally published in Noises Off.