Theatre in Wales

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

Trust the Tale, Not the Teller

Empty Theatres- Blame the Audience

Numbers in theatre are hard to find. Funders get to know them but otherwise the makers of theatre are as tight-lipped as any other corporate sector. The artist who has made her finances entirely transparent is a rare exception. The odd number does sometimes get into the press. A Sunday newspaper article in mid-2015 reported that a regional theatre in a northern town of three hundred thousand with a potentially big catchment area was empty for one hundred and forty-two nights over one six month period. Councils are responding to stringency in two main ways, one of which is to reduce the estate. Live performance is not just costly in its mounting. The venues of an earlier age, many of them buildings of architectural glory, carry a huge burden of significant and under-utilised overhead.

There is a result. Programming fees, says a voice in the Guardian of 27th May, have remained stagnant for twenty years. “Often, the percentage split doesn’t cover the get-ins and get-outs, let alone wages.” This was not an unknown company but one from the first league, Out of Joint. In its week at Malvern’s lovely theatre Richard Bean’s “Pitcairn” lost the company twenty-six thousand pounds.

This appeared in a long feature by Matt Trueman that was remarkable for several reasons, and probably not those intended by the authors. The most obvious was that it had a director reporting his poor audiences. “In Leeds we played to the worst houses we’ve ever had there. The same in Exeter the week before.” “The numbers were inexorable, Exeter 105 a night, Watford 107, Hull, 56. “Even in Liverpool, only 127 a night turned up” writes the interviewer. Why Liverpool deserves its “even” is unexplained. Part of the uniqueness of this feature was it was mid-tour, hardly the best way to promote a play to future audiences.

This was one unusual aspect. Statements sit on a bedrock of assumption. Two shone through. One touched on the question of ownership, the second the issue of responsibility. The play on tour “Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage” was a co-production with the National Theatre of Wales and the Arcola. The co-producers were written out of this particular narrative. The Arcola was the last venue of the tour. If I were an Arcola manager I would be hopping mad at a director stating that a weak sales performer was heading to my theatre.

This leads on to the implied views of leadership. The author goes off on a digression into the past. It is hardly relevant since no-one would deny that Max Stafford-Clark is a figure of the greatest significance within his chosen art. Thus Sonia Friedman: “he was – and probably still is – our greatest dramaturg-director and champion of new work. He has discovered and nurtured a generation of writers who have influenced another generation of writers.”

“That roster”, writes Trueman, speaks for itself: David Hare, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Mark Ravenhill. He has inspired them with subjects as often as they’ve inspired him with scripts, and the…method, which lets writers explore a subject collaboratively, before writing individually, has become a standard practice. His influence is immense and his body of work astounding.”

But that is undisputed. What is to hand is one production’s inability to sell. The less promising comment is “Anybody who’s worked with Max knows he’s frustrating because he’s tough and ruthless.” That is unintentionally revealing since this last adjective is out of kilter with all modern notions of leadership. One factor is evident from the article. The Director has to be a public school man. That entrenched sense of entitlement is its hallmark and indeed a glance at the biography confirms it to be the case. But the public school tradition also bred responsibility. If you are the director then the responsibility for sales is yours and nobody else’s.

This is what makes the article a reading experience of deep sadness. Britain has lost it in so many industry sectors, all varied but united by one factor, managerial conservatism. They are the bee in the uncapped bottle who never escapes due to doing over and over the one thing it thinks right. Look to costs. The author’s book “Journal of the Plague Year.” revealed little serious response to the twenty-five percent funding cut. The Board in the book’s account played no role at all. My review of the book suggested that even the accounting treatment of what was then called “Wearing the Raven” was deficient. Trueman suggests that the five weeks of rehearsal and all the development workshops are sacrosanct. From the end result it is difficult for the viewer to see why the gestation period of three years for the production was so extended.

here are only a few basics of marketing. Look first to brand and product. “Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is as good as anything I’ve ever done”. Trueman adds the phrase “uncompromising and unflinching”. It appears as if the journalist has not seen the show so in effect it is a cut and paste of what he is told. He thinks for instance that it is about sport and politics- it isn’t. It does not fit the company brand. That brand does “the Big Fellah” (reviewed here 13th November 2010) or “Testing the Echo” (reviewed 17 June 2008). On a personal note David Hare’s “the Absence of War” pulled in a good house at Liverpool. On its exit the audience was handed leaflets for the upcoming visit of Out of Joint. Any decent sales manager could take a look at the Hare and Labour Party audience and know they are not going to head for a sports documentary. It all comes back to having a rounded management team and honesty to yourself about the product.

The online commentary for this piece, fifty pieces, included the usual bile, cursing and irrelevance. But some of the comment informed. “It’s had reviews as good as any show we’ve done” is the official company line. But a professional is of the view that “reviews alone don't make a huge difference on tour outside of London. A little but not much. Subject is a bigger factor.” From the Tobacco Factory: “a number of plays about sport…have not done well for audiences in the last twelve months or so, including this one, the World Cup show at Bristol Old Vic and the Nuffield / Southampton football club tie-in.”

Other commentators are blunt “sports fans don't tend to be theatre goers.” It’s a simple Venn diagram: “if they're trying to attract non-typical audiences via the sporting angle the gay theme likely won't help that…I can see the gay issue putting a potential sports audience off, and the sports putting the gay and supportive-issue audiences off”. One veteran venue manager wondered why the show was so yoked to theatres anyhow. With no great sophistication of design it could have borrowed from the National Theatre of Wales and played at rugby clubs. The reasons surmised are conservatism, possibly fear.

Given the locations where it was chosen to play everyone else is to blame. Theatres “have got their pricing structures badly wrong”. “The industry is having to take safer and safer decisions.” Given the welter of innovation this is nonsense- in character the journalist makes no comment. “Audiences are taking safer and safer decisions, too.” It’s all the fault of the customers. “Quite often, Saturdays are the thinnest nights of the week.” It is a culture of profusion and theatre has to compete. Intuitively there is quite likely a high cross-over between an Out of Joint and a BBC4 audience. But then market research is not apparent as a management tool at the company. It takes a younger generation to spell it out. Graeme Farrow (Sunday Times June 7th) is aware of the challenge for live performance- “how it can sell itself as being as exciting an offer as sitting in and watching “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men”.

Like the book the article is a sad closure to a luminescent career. Critics and venues are as one. “We all have to fight for audiences these days…If the public wants to see something and pay for a ticket - it comes. If they don't come - don't blame the audience.” Mark Shenton, in another context: It seems outrageous that an artistic director should blame the failure of a play on a failure in the It seems outrageous that an artistic director should blame the failure of a play on a failure in the audience.”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
24 December 2015


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