Blasted, Lyric Hamersmith

Danny Webb in Lyric Hammersmith's production of Blasted in 2011

“It’s urgent that state-subsidised theatres continue to stage work that is not going to find an audience”

That’s playwright Simon Stephens, quoted in this Guardian this week. I disagree with Stephens, and want to explain why. Before the attacks begin, let me state that I am a huge theatre fan, I love seeing new plays and new ideas, and I am all for experimentation and risk. I have written before about the importance of being allowed to fail – so long as lessons are learned from that failure.

However, I cannot agree that it’s OK – let alone “urgent” – for state-subsidised theatre to spend money on work that is categorically not going to find an audience. By all means put on something new, bold and experimental, and budget to cover your costs if it’s not a sell-out. But that’s a question of knowing your audience, of seeking out the people who will enjoy the riskier work, and of marketing accordingly. There’s a big difference between saying “state-subsidised theatres should focus on unpopular work” and “state-subsidised theatres should be allowed to experiment with unpopular work”.  Stephens’ statement is somewhat ambiguous but it’s the first that I take issue with.

It does theatre no good to pretend that it exists in a vacuum. Simply, if people are not prepared to pay money for a ticket, then the performers and theatre will not make a profit or even cover their costs. It’s no good making performance work if you cannot entice people to see it performed. That’s self-indulgent at best, and a waste of time and money at worst. There’s a difference between “unpopular” and “inaccessible”.  Something that’s about child rape may be unpopular but still important (in some sense), whereas something that’s performed in ancient Greek is inaccessible to all but a very small number of people. However, the theoretical production in Greek is not necessarily unpopular – if it’s marketed well, then an audience could be persuaded to try something new. Language barriers can be overcome.

The Guardian piece goes on to talk about Sarah Kane’s Blasted, which has never been performed in a commercial theatre. Well, that’s because it’s not a “commercial” piece, although it has been financially successful in subsidised theatres. However brilliant you think Blasted is as a play (and I do!), it does no good to pretend that it has universal appeal. Subsidised theatre has the luxury of not having to make a profit on every show (although they obviously have to show value etc to their funders), whereas commercial theatre has to make a profit or it fails. There is a select group of people who are willing, able and likely to sit through such a harrowing piece of drama, just as there are people who will choose Mamma Mia over Melancholia every time. The fact that I happen to be one of those who would sit through Blasted (or other boundary-pushing play) is immaterial: even when Blasted was first performed, people went to see it. Some walked out, many frothing rage-filled articles were written about it, but people actually turned up, paid their money and sat down. It got bums on seats.

Alex Needham, who wrote the Guardian piece, says: “The job of subsidised theatre has traditionally been to bring on new writers and put on plays that challenge or inspire debate but would not be popular enough for a commercial theatre to stage.” Now that I agree with. Challenging and inspiring debate is to be encouraged, and should absolutely be the job of subsidised theatre – and I’m sure is what the directors of subsidised venues strive to do. Producing something that might not be commercially viable is not the same as programming work that the theatre believes will draw in severely limited numbers. Any play that a theatre thinks is worth staging is chosen either on its merits, in which case promote it accordingly, or because someone thinks it has the potential to be a commercial success, in which case good luck to them.

Spaces like Soho, the Bush, the Gate regularly put on new or little-known plays, which is great, and the work produced there is often brilliant. However, they know their audiences, and they market accordingly. It seems to me that the whole question here is about knowing your audience, and marketing your shows in a way that appeals. The people who want to see the Tricycle’s current eight-hour marathon may not be the same people who want to see the all-male Twelfth Night at The Globe or Legally Blonde. And in the subsidised sector, the audience for Pitchfork Disney at the Arcola may not be the same as that for Bernarda Alba at the Almeida. And that’s fine. But to say that theatres that receive state subsidy should perform work that “is not going to find an audience” seems rather silly. How could they survive, especially in the wake of the cuts which Stephens et al are talking about? I think that Stephens overstates his case: is he really suggesting that state-subsidised theatre is justified in playing to an empty room, night after night?

A hyper-left-wing, hyper-pro-arts stance might say that art should be allowed to flourish in a community of artists, and that the state should be there to support that, whether or not there is an audience for it. In an ideal world, I’d find this pretty persuasive. However, in the context of the government we currently have and its cuts (to the arts and across the board) this is an unrealistic pipe dream. The key is rather to continue to stage populist stuff to (amongst other reasons) offset losses which might be made on experimental or controversial stuff. State-subsidised theatres still need to — and in fact have a responsibility to — do this. It’s the job of marketers and researchers to figure out how to entice audiences into the more “challenging” pieces, so that theatre as an art doesn’t stagnate.

Populist is not a dirty word, and putting on plays that people want to see is not a betrayal. The challenge, then, is to market the riskier plays – as many subsidised theatres are currently doing –  in such a way that we convince people that they want to see them, and persuade them to try something new. If we’re talking about new, challenging, exciting work, then I agree wholeheartedly that this is what subsidised theatre should be doing, and by-and-large I would argue that it is already. But if you want to put on work that is deliberately obscure and unpopular, then do it with your own money.