The Importance of Not Seeing Theatre

Since graduating from university I have found myself immersed in the cultural riches that London has to offer. If we look at any given night there are tens of shows happening all across London, waiting to be explored. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to dip my toe into the theatre scene as I explore the depths of the fringe theatre scene through my blogging and reviewing, and what I’ve learnt is it’s vast.. often too vast.

If there is one thing I admire about some of my fellow bloggers/reviewers is their ruthlessness in attending everything that they can. Admittedly it’s an obsession, or perhaps a long developing love affair that we contend with on a nightly basis. I look at Ian, who blogs as Ought To Be Clowns, and I am amazed at the commitment he has to his theatre viewing. At the recent Devoted & Disgruntled event on Theatre Criticism, when asked what makes him decide to see a certain show, Ian remarked bluntly that it wasn’t a choice, “I just see everything”. A look at his blog certainly makes it clear that in the world of theatre viewing, Ian is a heavyweight champion. A part of me is jealous: I wish I had the time and commitment to absorb as much theatre as I could, even if that did eat into the weekends (and heaven forbid a Sunday, too). But the truth is, I recently learnt that even the most passionate of theatre lovers such as myself have to take a break away from theatre, or risk running themselves into the ground.

It’s not just a matter of losing many an hour to the darkness of a theatre auditorium that requires a break from theatre attendance, it’s that that ‘too much of a good thing can be a bad thing’. In a discussion with a friend about my theatre viewing they questioned if I could actually see theatre objectively anymore, or if it all just blurred into one. The truth is slightly the latter. I often find it difficult to remember what I’ve seen in a given month, and more times than not I’ll see something which we’ve come to call ‘candyfloss theatre’ – you attend, you digest, you enjoy, and you’re left with nothing in return except a short sugar-rush if you’re lucky. Theatre becomes blurred, the boundaries are no longer defined. If anything, all the work is bookended by a few shows that you see and fall in love with. The rest are passing fancies.

Writing this now, I can see how disheartening it is. I love theatre – I live, breathe and eat theatre! – but after a while, the substance, the thing that makes theatre so enjoyable – the liveness, the unknowing depths, the emotion… well, I just become numb to it. It’s all very well stating that you attend each night with fresh eyes as any critic should do, but when you become numb, you’re secretly applying an agenda to the work before you’ve even seen it. You want each piece to speak directly to you, to shake you by the scruff of your neck and shout at you something you didn’t know. (I’m automatically remembering Aleks Sierz’s term of “in-your-face theatre” – at least it provokes a reaction.)

So I’ve stopped going to the theatre. I’m finding again the joy of ending a working day (let’s not forget that we’re not all in the great position of having theatre reviewing as our main job) by going home, having a glass of wine and putting my feet up. I’m relaxing, no longer dashing across town and then staying up late writing a review. It’s not just my social life that has improved, but also my appreciation of theatre. I’m getting excited at the prospect of sitting down and watching some kind of magic unfold before me. I’m getting that nervous jolt that happens when you witness an actor climb to an undiscovered height within a play, or even to laugh openly with hundreds of others.

Just like we all need a holiday to recharge our batteries, those working in the arts also need some time away from it to appreciate it more. That way we will be challenged more, we’ll find more joy in the subtle dynamics of theatre, and, hopefully, I’ll rekindle that love I first found when watching Oliver! at the London Palladium. The truth is, it’s not just bloggers or those working in the arts who need time away from theatre, it’s also the artists themselves.

A period of self-evaluation is never a bad thing. Surely if a theatre artist works continuously they’ll eventually begin to produce some disappointingly tired pieces – it’s only natural that the real energy comes at the start, and we start to dwindle at the end of a run. I think of the Belt Up Theatre gang, and how they seem to constantly be in a state of flux, and whilst they are being hailed as the new wave of British theatre companies, they’re also letting the odd show reach us that disappoints. The importance here is that whilst they have been rocketed to a certain level in new theatre making, they need to take time out to reassess, and to find the passion and project that will propel them forwards even further.

My mother is a continuous mentor for me, she keeps me on the straight and narrow. When finding out what theatre I have lined up before me in the coming week she reminds me “not to burn the candle at both ends”. The truth is, she is right. Working myself to exhaustion will only hinder the work I’m doing. It isn’t fair on the companies I’m reviewing, or the team here at AYT. Just like an artist takes time to develop their medium, so must the blogger. Most importantly, we (theatre artists, writers, makers, creators, etc.) need to see the importance of not going to the theatre, to see the true beauty in going in the first place.

A balance we all struggle against, but ultimately have to face.

Image by Ivars Krutainis.