Over the past few months we have found ourselves involved in a number of conversations about the current trend in theatre companies of producing adaptations of popular children’s books. We can’t say we blame them as Julia Donaldson favourites such as Room on the Broom and Oliver Jeffers’s books are playing to sell-out audiences, with happy parents, happy children and happy venue managers.
This trend seems to extend much further than the world of children’s theatre. Hollywood have been reusing and recycling for many years. Look at the most recent blockbuster to be hitting our screens: Les Miserables, first a book, then an extremely popular musical, so why wouldn’t the film industry want a piece of the action? In fact, amongst the awards nominations, original stories and characters are few and far between.
The music industry is also keen to recycle, with artists constantly covering old songs or sampling large sections. The successes of X-Factor and the BBC Live Lounge have meant that topping the chart is assisted by a re-vamp of an already popular song. That is before we even get started on the current trend in adverts for female solo acoustic covers.
It seems that with a title comes an element of safety and security. If it has sold once it’s most likely it will sell again with fans eager to see it in its new variation or form – unless you count Jedward’s contribution of Under Pressure (Ice Ice Baby)! As creatures of habit, we often take joy in the product’s familiarity, looking for new ways to enjoy what we know we already like. A recent, successful example of this in the theatre is the all-female cast of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse, based in a women’s prison. Seeing the play re-contextualised and reimagined can be thought-provoking and refreshing.
We’ve used this theory ourselves with our re-telling of Snow White. We thought that as a new company no one would recognise our name or know who we were, therefore they would be unsure as to the quality and style of our work. However, with the show bearing the title Snow White, audiences and programmers can make an educated guess as to what they will be getting (even if we did then put our own spin on it).
So new adaptations are not a bad thing once in a while, but why aren’t companies creating their own fresh, original stories to tell? Is it too difficult? Too time-consuming? Or are our audiences simply not willing to take the risk on something new?
Could the current economic situation have an effect? If people are limiting how many theatre visits they can make due to their budget, they’re going to want to know that the selected show is going to be good. Therefore, on a very basic level, a well-known title = safe, whilst new, unknown = risky. This will surely affect the decisions that venue programmers make if a popular title of a familiar show is more likely to guarantee a reduction in their risk of empty seats.
It may also be the ‘Trip Advisor’ effect – where people won’t go anywhere or buy into anything until they have had its quality assured by others. How many people will wait until they read a review before booking tickets to an event? The internet makes this easy to do. However, you still need people to take that initial chance.
If this is the case what can we do, as an arts industry, to encourage new work? And just as critically, encourage audiences to go and take a risk and watch it? Some venues do work to make this happen. The Royal Court is renowned and celebrated as a home for new writing, as is the Tricycle. They both find a way to engage their audience, building trust in their judgement and their brand, and therefore make audiences return to watch new work performed there. Critically, it is the venue that becomes the point of familiarity for an audience.
This principle of trust might be the key. Audiences trust familiar titles, companies and venues. They want an assurance of quality and this is a way to achieve it. It appears, therefore, that it is our duty to build trust amongst theatregoers, to make them feel confident in taking a risk. In order for this to happen it feels that a change in attitude is required; a change that needs to be supported throughout the industry from the media, to venues, to theatre makers and theatre training.
It simply comes down to discovering what audiences really want. Yes, they want to enjoy high quality adaptations, but they also want to be challenged, to see and experience new stories and new ways of telling stories. Surely we have plenty of current, relevant and original stories to share?