Like many of us, Emma Bentley was not happy to see Emilia close early. Here, she ponders why: bad ticket sales? bad marketing? The white men at the ‘top’?
When something ends early it’s always a disappointment and we are left with a yearning for what might have been. Last Saturday, Emilia closed to a sell-out house at the Vaudeville Theatre and the party of a black feminist story in London’s theatreland ended – for now at least
I was sat in a lecture at Central School of Speech and Drama, titled ‘Lindsay Lohan’s Bitch Club’ when I was told that Emilia was closing two weeks early. Anger seethed through me and I was filled with feelings of frustration for those involved and for myself. How silly I had been to miss the fact the show was doing ‘badly’ with its ticket sales? Why didn’t I encourage my non-theatre mates to go more? I thought everyone knew about it! But it was my own close-knit circle and complacency which fooled me into thinking the show’s success was universally acknowledged and, in reflection I wonder how many of us fell into this trap.
There must have been a larger audience available other than the core #EmiliaFamilia. So why didn’t they come?
I am a writer but not an academic and so feel rather out of my depth when talking about the inherently capitalist structure of London’s commercial theatre scene. However, after doing a series of lectures with Heritage Arts Practitioner Connie Belle from Decolonising the Archives, I was given the tools to realise that Emilia is an act of decolonisation in itself. A show with three black female leads, THE FIRST EVER all-female cast and crew, a piece of new writing, and not one single ‘star’ cast member to be seen. From a writing perspective, the actors and characters were diverse in so many ways – race, disability, age and size – but none of this was crucial to the characters’ wants or needs. The power of the show is immense, as can be seen from the twitter army, the tattoos (!!!), and from the sheer amount of noise that could be heard from the audience every night.
Perhapsthere was someslippage between the power of the performance itself and the way the show was sold. Looking over the marketing text on the Today Tix website (although it didn’t occur to me at the time), the only reference to Emilia Bassano being a black woman is that she could have been Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’. There is also no reference to the way the play deals with immigration. Although the main image is of three black women standing together, it seems that, copy-wise, the marketing sits on the fence of its own decolonisation rather than promoting it. In doing so, rather than inviting in audiences who are averse to plays about these issues, perhaps it failed to draw in audiences who are passionate about them.
There is also the fact that the show split critics massively. Comments such as “Incendiary and infuriating feminist drama” from Timeout and “agit prop for the #MeToo generation” from The Telegraph, both seem to suggest that the show fights the feminist fight, but in the wrong way. Both reviews also gave the show 3 stars, though what this actually means is blurry. I’ll save this debacle for another article.
Despite this gloomy view, there are some brilliant up-sides to the production’s bad sales figures that show what a social media army can do to take a production’s success into their own hands. I have never seen so many screen shots of messages on twitter where 140 characters just wasn’t enough to express their feelings of joy. Then there was Ben Hewis, creator of Humans of Theatre, who set up a crowd fund to enable young women who couldn’t afford to see the show, which surpassed its original goal of £1500 and reached £2,805! Emilia was also home to another first with a West End parent and baby performance – #LetThemRoar – which sold out and has been rumoured to encourage a tradition of such performances in the future. It all underpins the idea that if you make your work accessible to different types of audiences, whether that means monetarily or by actions, they will come. But it must be affordable. The problem here lies with ticket prices and where there is no subsidising there is simply no way to bring in the audience the show caters for.
Although the show’s early closure was kept relatively quiet, other than to audiences that would have had to swap or completely cancel their tickets, my major worry is that events such as this send out ripples into the industry that we could really do without right now. Will audiences lose trust in new work championing diverse voices when we continue to face such struggles in the commercial landscape? Sylvia at the Old Vic, the hip-hop musical about the Pankhurst family caused controversy because of its cancelled press night and rebranding as a ‘work-in-progress’ show. What if there is someone important sat at a desk (and let’s be honest, probably a man), bellowing, “well it’s all very well that the show was popular with its audiences but is it financially viable?!” It’s like Emma Rice’s departure from the Globe all over again: “Yes Imogen completely sold out, but she used an unorthodox lighting rig – get rid of her!” The assistant director of the show Rafaella Marcus has tweeted in opposition: “There is hunger for the work of writers like @mogster, who write from their guts and their breasts, because these stories won’t be denied.” To us as theatre makers, we understand the pitfalls and struggles that we face in putting on this work. But do our audiences? I want to believe so badly that they do, but the thing is, once you’re in the #EmiliaFamilia, it’s so difficult to see what life is like on the outside of it.
I think we should see Emilia’s early closure not as a failure but as a gift. It is now an event in our learning process as an industry about the dichotomy between the loud and fierce voices of our supporters and the capitalist theatre world that we inhabit. I think our archetypal elite audiences were not quite ready to hear what we had to say, and that now seems obvious. It is a HUGE task to decolonise the west-end. And although the individual contribution from Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm and her team has been massive, they cannot do it alone. They’ve done so well. But theatre makers, writers, actors, let’s continue to take their lead and BURN THE WHOLE FUCKING HOUSE DOWN.
Special thanks to Connie Belle, Ashleigh Packham and the Archiving Class on the MA programmes at Central School of Speech and Drama.