Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Big Theatre & Satellite

The Elbowing of the Small-cast Tour

Radio 4’s Front Row of December 14th put together a panel to discuss regional theatre. The topics were various but left out the subject of the big budget shows beamed in from London or New York. On December 3rd the subject was addressed in the Guardian. Lyn Gardner alighted first on a benefit: “if live screenings have provided a commercial windfall for the NT and RSC, they have also benefited the actors involved, who get extra payments.” She added carefully “then, of course, there is a very good argument that potentially the theatre ecology is helped because the more theatre that people are exposed to, in whatever format, the more likely they are to want to see more theatre, maybe in different formats including live touring shows.” But note the maybe.

There is no turning back technology and audiences beyond the South Bank deserve to have sight of the cream of the world’s theatre. That is even more the case where London has benefit of companies that never tour. On its first screening the ballet of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” had an audience of sixty thousand and thirteen thousand at its first repeat. The repeat screenings are an aspect that is little discussed. In fact they are films to such an extent cinema billings now do not even differentiate. The mega-mall Westfield multiplex bills Cumberbatch next to Cruise and does not even mention that “Frankenstein” was once a piece for stage. It is a film.

The second aspect unmentioned is how quickly it has come to resemble the film industry itself. I am grateful to have had sight of “This House” and “Last of the Haussmans”- the first professional performance by Aberystwyth’s Taron Egerton. But these are the exceptions. Ironically the National Theatre prefigured this with a play about the earliest days of film. Nicholas Wright’s “Travelling Light” showed that all the elements of the industry were set down in obscurity in Tsarist-era Russia. The first crucial discovery was the lead. The box office for these screenings rises with the star whose name is already well-known from screen. It’s not a great actor doing “Coriolanus” but Loki. It’s not Oscar Wilde who sells but Poirot.

I personally do not mind. All art changes, its making changes and its channels change. The peak of theatre is anyway untranslatable. Try getting “Going Dark” from Fuel and Sound & Fury into another medium- it cannot be done. The camera cannot capture the coup de theatre that Camilla Clarke achieved for Volcano this year nor the gigantism of the visual image that Rachel O’Riordan created at “the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Theatre itself has not much to say about the cannibalisation of audiences, probably out of a sense of solidarity with the big beasts, but also out of fear. These rich companies offer potential patronage. Elizabeth Freestone of Pentabus is an exception. In Lyn Gardner’s words she “bravely stuck her head above the parapet.” “It will be ironic if the likes of the National Theatre and RSC with all their resources and public subsidies, effectively put small scale touring companies out of business by mopping up all available cash from potential live theatre-goers across the country.”

The original article ends “But if they are undercutting the live arts offering, rather than complementing it and encouraging audiences outside of London to see live theatre, then that needs to be addressed properly.”

That sounds a little feeble. “Needs to be addressed properly” is a cry from the powerless. It is the same cry from taxi drivers who resist the irresistible app or the travel agents rendered unemployed. Indeed professionally paid arts journalists have all gone beyond a few in London or Edinburgh. The power is the platform. Theatre is no different and the platform belongs to those with the greatest power. If digitisation reduces employment of actors, designers and directors then that is the name of the game. At its peak the Blockbuster chain had eighty-three thousand employees. Netflix has two thousand. Twelve hundred firms have gone public in USA this century; on average they have created fewer than seven hundred jobs apiece worldwide.

“Video Killed the Radio Star” sang the Buggles a quarter century back. Touring is already wounded- no Kneehigh or Northern Broadsides or Vanishing Point any more in Wales. It will survive in some form. But then at the highest-profile tour of 2015 the audience member next to me switched on a bright smartphone to illuminate notes for her essay on semiotics. Performance reduced to content for essay-writing is just one manifestation of inattention. It is rumoured that revenue-pressed managers are pressured not to exclude texters and phone switchers-on. It is a differentation- if an over-fifty switched on a torch they would be for it. If live performance cannot command attention for itself in its own right it has already died.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
31 December 2015


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