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Theatre Thought: The future of theatres lies in the community

Posted on 13 June 2012 by Jake Orr

The below speech was given at the Theatres Trust’s Conference on Delivering Sustainable Theatres on Tuesday 12 June. You can see the full line up of speakers here.

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.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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My Theatre 2010 Hopes – Did They Happen?

Posted on 31 December 2010 by Jake Orr

On 31st of December 2009 I wrote an article entitled ‘The Theatre of 2010 – My Hopes‘ which was a take on the ‘Best of…’ articles which seem to creep up every year in newspapers, websites and magazines. Instead of writing the best of 2010, I’m going back to this article, to see if any of them have been met, surpassed my hopes or indeed failed. Topics raised included environmentally friendly theatres, young peoples voices, and the use of social media.

#1 Continued West End Ticket Sales
It’s hard to judge the impact of ticket sales as there are currently no reports out to suggest that the West End suffered or gained from 2010. I can only imagine that from the success of 2009, it will be on the up. If the Kids Week statistics are anything to go by, which saw more than 16,000 tickets being sold and an extension of the scheme due to demand, then we’re on track to have another year of growth in the West End. Recession or not, theatre is still being loved by all. The real excitement will come in 2012 with the Olympics.

#2 Lighting in the lime light
Aside from the terrible pun, I wanted to see lighting designers getting more credit for their work. Their craft is a very simple, yet completely mediocre and complicated one to achieve. How to make something on stage look good, or else stopping it all going in the dark. Whilst I’ve not noticed an increase in critical praise of lighting designers’ work, I have on numerous occasions (here for example) highlighted the work of the lighting designers giving them the praise they deserve. So perhaps it’s not the done thing but I’m sure I could get someone interested to give a detailed review of lighting in the shows they see, but is that what people want to read? The quest goes on…

#3 Young people breaking through
Thinking about this previous remark of wanting to see more young people having a voice and discussion on theatre is a bit ironic. I had pointed out the existence of AYT as a place where I was doing this, but little did I think that it would end up being the place where this ‘revolution’ would take place. AYT has been growing, we have 4 journalists, 5 bloggers, 15 reviewers, all young and starting conversations on theatre and the arts. If that isn’t a break through I don’t know what is. Other highlights included If I Ruled The World Festival at the BAC, the Takeover Festival at the York Theatre Royal, Run Rabbit Run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Are young people starting to have their share on the stage?

#4 Internships On Top
If anything Internships are still running throughout theatres, but have also been under increasing pressure and criticism/criticism for their conduct throughout 2010. Are they exploiting young people, or valuable learning tools for engaging in the arts sector? The Future Jobs scheme opened up brilliant opportunities for apprentices and training programs across theatres – these being paid too. Sadly the Future Jobs scheme has been cut by the Government, at a great loss to young people. So what of the average internship? Well, I still support them, knowing the benefits of them myself, but they need the governments backing to offer paid opportunities to anyone, and not just those who are unemployed. AYT still maintains our list of theatre internships.

#5 Ecofriendly

I honestly believe that in a world where we are racked with a global warming crisis (despite it dying down in the media), theatres had to pull their weight in becoming more environmentally friendly. I had praised the work of the Arcola Theatre as “one of the leading theatres in tackling the green initiative” with their Arcola Energy project. My hope was to see other theatres and organisations taking an example from the Arcola and adapting it for themselves. 2010 saw the launch of the EcoVenue Scheme by Theatres Trust. A collection of 12 theatres became the first to be accepted onto the scheme with the aim of improving green initiatives and making their venues a more environmentally building. The EcoVenue Scheme has gone from strength to strength and now includes 48 venues. Verdict: A huge success, and whilst it’s still early days, the involvement of The Theatres Trust to begin this process is outstanding.

#6 Social Media For Better
I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how much Social Media would influence the way in which theatres interacted with their audiences in 2010. Whole marketing plans now include social media strategies to work better at the communication between theatres and their audiences. There have of course been some cock-ups along the way (National Theatre Twitter Muck Up) but there have been some effective uses of social media to truly push boundaries. I’m talking about of course Such Tweet Sorrow, the most adventerous thing the RSC has actually done for many years. Yes I hated it, but no one has come close to it since – unless you count Blast Theory’s SMS Drama. If 2010 was a good year for social media then 2011 is looking to be the year that real adventures and excitement is being made, and hopefully AYT will be able to report on each and everyone of them.

#7 The London Festival Fringe
I typed this name out, and failed to suppress my laughter. I had vowed that I wanted to see this London Festival which was attempting to rival the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to either “completely flop or completely blow all our minds”, the reality is neither. I remained in London during August putting on my own show as part of the Camden Fringe, and I have to say that not once did I hear of the London Festival Fringe. It did little to blow away the cob-webs of the London Fringe scene as promised. I had also hoped for a “better website, better organisation, and better ideas”, and this was not received. The website still looks horrendous, I’ve heard nothing but headaches over the way the LFF is managed and there were no ideas to make it any different than a copy-cat version of other cities. Verdict: A disappointing, but predictable outcome. The London Festival Fringe failed to leave it’s mark, or indeed ruffle any theatre loving people into a state of “we love London Theatre”. Back to the drawing board yes?

Did you have a hope for 2010? Was it met or more to the point disappointingly missed altogether? 2011 is going to be an exciting year, where theatres push further in their work with the recent funding cuts, and the need to become more ‘transparent’ in their campaigns and organisations.

Image by Andy Bird.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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Follow Me:
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