on the road to nowhere
Last week we ran an event called ‘I liked it but I couldn’t book it’ as part of the Guardian and BACs series of conversations called A Nations Theatre led by Lyn Gardner – who has written a blog about the event here. The focus of that particular conversation was how we might ensure contemporary theatre thrives in our rural communities. In thinking what I might say before the event I decided that the one notion I wanted to challenge was that of ‘taking the audience on a journey’. Not that I am anti journey. Every piece of work I make has some element of journey in it. The journeys I wanted to challenge are the drug dealer kind. The ‘get them in on the soft drugs and then we can get them onto the hard stuff’ There is so much wrong with this approach that it is hard to know where to start.
Firstly all of the work that I, and many of my contemporaries, make has carefully considered the audience from the start. But I never think ‘is it simple?’, ‘is it easy to understand?’ or ‘is it early-audience work?’ I make the best work that I possibly can. Every time. And as part of that process I ask myself who is this art for. By and large I would never include swearing in a show – on the basis that years ago I directed a production I was really proud of and when I asked my gran what she thought of it all she said was that she didn’t like the swearing. I don’t want that to be the conversation at the end of a show. I would also never describe my work as ‘cutting edge’ or ‘experimental’ or ‘challenging’ – all words that might appeal to an urban arts going audience – but they might not appeal to a community audience in rural Lincolnshire. I would, however, hope to make work that has all of those qualities. Work in which the lead character is a fish, work about the current migrant crisis, work that deals with a young boys realization that they are born in the wrong body, and more.
I wonder if this is a conversation that other art forms have? Does the curator of the Tate think that they need to show new visitors simple line drawings – or better still, cartoons, before showing them Picasso’s Guernica or the work of Paul Klee?
In my earlier days I worked in Theatre in Education and we would often talk about the contract with the audience. In this instance often with young people who had no theatre vocabulary. In these works there would always be an establishing of the relationship between the actors and audience early on in the piece. And many of these works experimented with form, played with time, asked the audience to shift from viewer to participant, asked complex questions about how we live our lives. 6 year olds in Watford had no difficulty in navigating this territory. We are in danger of missing the opportunities to play, to make use of the unique strengths of community touring – that we are presenting work in spaces that are familiar to the audience, that we enter and leave through the same door, that there is no architecture to separate players from audience, that the audience often knows each other – if we ape a cabaret circuit touring model.
I also worry that the custodians who want to start with ‘easy work’ risk underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Theatre, if anything, has to be driven by a passion. There has to be a reason to tell the story to this audience, at this time in this place. If we start with versions of Jane Eyre or plays about how good it was before the tractor was invented we risk creating in the minds of our audience that community touring has nothing to say. A mistake that many repertory companies made in the 80s and 90s.
I do know that there is a lot of work being made that hasn’t considered its audience and work that underestimates them. Work that is designed to ‘give them what we think they want’. And mostly they are a disappointment. Yes, people may initially feel sated, that they have had their dose of culture. But, rather like poor Chinese food, they will feel hungry in half an hour. Theatre, at its best, needs to live in the mind and hearts of the audience long after the company has gone. We need to be more ambitious for the work if theatre is going to retain its place alongside programmer’s choices of music, comedy and film. Theatre, of course, has the potential to be a good night out but it can, uniquely, be so much more than that. Theatre can be vital and relevant and heart stopping.