Last month we were treated to an online big bang kicked off by Bryony Kimmings’s I’ll Show you mine blog. It has become clear through the online dialogue that even award-winning artists struggle. However, it is fair to say that the venues are hardly sitting on towers of gold coins either. So why is there so little money in the industry without public funding? Are the general public just not buying tickets?
Theatre: we all have our own personal version of what it is and what it means to us. If you’re reading this blog it probably means that you either like/have an interest in it or live and breathe the stuff. But the more and more theatre we see, the more we’re disappointed in the audiences. Not the individuals themselves but the ticket holders filling the seats. The longer you’re in it, the smaller this industry can seem, for out of all the lovely people sitting around in the auditorium, many are easily identifiable as ‘theatre folk’.
We went to see a children’s show the other week and were delighted to see the theatre nearly at full capacity – then on closer examination we noticed that there was actually only a mere handful of children in the audience. Now don’t get us wrong, we’re all for adults watching children’s work and actively encourage it, but we couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the work wasn’t being seen by more of its target audience. Instead, in the foyer, we observed air kisses aplenty and intimate exchanges from people who knew people, who knew “so-and-so from Venue X”. So we want to know –are theatre makers the main people watching theatre?
Here’s a challenge: when chatting to people, whether they be family members or friends, ask if they go to the theatre much and if they’ve seen anything they’d recommend. We do this often and you do get some shocking and admittedly depressing answers. You may notice if you speak to anyone in the industry that they’ll reel off a list of shows they’ve seen in the last month alone, right down to who they knew in the cast and the company’s back catalogue of shows. Now, the other responses we get are more startling. They range from embarrassment as if it’s something they’re not ‘cultured’ enough to do or saying flatly that it’s not really their ‘thing’, to just scoffing and saying “who can afford to do that?” If we had a pound for every time we heard the latter we could probably afford to build a theatre of our very own.
So why are there still these horrible preconceptions still around? Are we at risk of making theatre too exclusive and not accessible enough? Why do people still instantly equate theatre with the pricey West End and how can we change this? Some people may not even appreciate that they have a local theatre to go to. As an example, we’ve spoken to countless friends who live in Kingston. They’ve heard of the Rose Theatre and could tell you where it is, but have they ever ventured inside? Absolutely not! You hear terrible stories about local theatres closing down all over the country. Are theatres at risk of becoming the equivalent of the public library – a familiar, trustworthy building that’s always been there but that admittedly you rarely venture into? Surely theatres should be the heart of a town, providing a place where ideas and emotions can come alive, not underused buildings that rely on their annual pantomime or youth club just to scrape by.
But before we run away with ourselves, we know that with theatre you can’t just make these sort of sweeping generalisations. Work today is so varied that half the time there will be no proscenium arch, ice cream sellers, programmes or even seats! So how do we go about capturing the public’s interest in theatre? Surely it should be a word synonymous with creativity and inspiration that draws people in – not some people’s dated image of old hams in bad wigs ‘doing some acting’ or even big-budget premium priced events whose ticket prices make families wince. Then again you have the example of companies like Punchdrunk – pioneering, exciting and interactive. But have we ever seen a Punchdrunk show? No. With premium tickets reaching up to £85, none of us could afford to see The Drowned Man, as much as we would have loved to. But they do sell out. Isn’t it a shame that the exciting, innovative work, that could really shatter people’s perceived notions of a theatrical event, is only really available to the financially blessed?
We’ve done shows at venues such as Stratford Circus where families come up to us and are startled at what they see, as it didn’t match their preconception of what theatre is or should be. This is a venue that makes the effort to reach out to its local community. With family offers and a welcoming air, it provides a non-pretentious place for families to come and embrace new work all throughout the year, even for those who have never set foot in a theatre before. Likewise, the Half Moon offers one reasonably priced ticket that is the same for both children and adults. This is what we need to encourage. After all, theatre isn’t just for Christmas.
Photo: Stratford Circus by Flickr user AndyRobertsPhotos under a Creative Commons Licence.