Theatre in Wales

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Pseudo-Events, Responsibility and the Myth of the Regular Audience

Theatre: the Talk in England

Comment on Theatre , England , December-30-15
Theatre: the Talk in England by Comment on Theatre Digi-commentary is a universe of its own, unindexed and unindexable. Somewhere out there in the cyber-galaxy there may be essays on theatre that are all of a piece thoughtful, cogent and structured. If they do exist they are hard in the finding. But then their composition requires labour and the lure of easy solipsism ever-present.

But then attention and response to the work itself requires work. Theatre writing, no different from any other, is prey to the pseudo-event. The pseudo-event is now half a century old, pinned down Daniel Boorstin in his book “the Image.” The pseudo-event, as he described it, is not an event that occurs in the world with a purpose of its own. Its motivation and creation is to be an item for news consumption.

Historians with their benefit of hindsight will make their judgement on this first flush of the Internet age. With theatre there is a bifurcation, the work itself exciting and varied, the optimism constant, the quantity abundant. The talk by contrast is, with a few exceptions that shine, dim; groupthink is the rule, monochrome the colour of its culture of comment.

Over and over the old adage “trust the tale, not the teller” rings home. Not easy where a strand of art dignifies intention over execution, where makers are obliged to be their own explicators and promoters, where public relations budgets outgun those for critical writing by a factor of nine to one.

The late part of 2015 saw a class pseudo-event. A formidable theatre-maker, the head of the Royal Court, makes a declaration. Female playwrights are judged more harshly, by both critics and audiences, than males. It is an assertion based on one production from a Scots-based writer. As a rule it is absurd. If pressed many a critical voice would nominate Caryl Churchill as theatre’s most innovative, creative and constantly self-renewing living theatre voice. A generation back her work for the Royal Court was the theatrical benchmark for financial chicanery and corporate malfeasance. That was “Serious Money.”

This century the grotesque world of off-balance sheet funding and invented profits received its ultimate expression in “Enron.” That too was the work of a woman writer. In fact it is the Royal Court itself that is in the lead for women playwrights with a whole string debuting in recent years.

The extremity of the comment then generates its response. Mark Shenton ripostes “it seems outrageous that an artistic director should blame the failure of a play on a failure in the audience. Who can legislate for how we should enjoy theatre?” Perhaps the play is not exciting. Besides for a woman director to find her own customers wanting is to find fault in her own gender. Shenton cites an Ipsos Mori survey, admittedly from 2010, that had women accounting for two-thirds of theatregoers in London.

Theatre has an admirable sense of its responsibility. “I’ve been in a number of meetings recently where really clever people have asked what are our regional theatres for?” writes a commentator. “And really clever people have answered with points about skills development, about mixed income streams and about ensuring a national spread of live entertainment.” It is interesting how the adjective “clever” has been given an air of disfavour.

“It’s been a while since I heard anyone talk spiritedly about the changes in society that a relevant theatre can support.” The word “support” is interesting. The most salient changes include health inequalities, mass youth unemployment and the opting-out of politics by young people. None of these changes are worthy of support. Decent theatre-making will be about its social context anyhow.

“I want a theatre network that offers inspiring, provoking live entertainment to all members of society regardless of their financial situation.” “Provoking” is a code word. It means preachy, and probably predictable If it is preachy it won’t get an audience. In a culture of profusion Youtube is more interesting.

If anything the contention sits anyhow on a false premise. It shows also the gulf between the sit-at-home bystanders and those who have somehow to make theatres work. “Theatres must look beyond their regular audiences and to society itself “ says a voice. It prompts a response “How rude. Because I go to the theatre regularly, suddenly I'm not a member of society any more?”

But the notion of a regular and reliable audience is a myth. Every ticket has to be fought for. A theatre practitioner snaps at the originating article “this is uncharacteristically poor…a critic who doesn't have to live with and negotiate the desperate compromises and challenges that come from working in a public arts institution, having a glib rant about their moral failures but offering no constructive solutions?” “We all have to fight for audiences these days” writes an actual manager. “If the public wants to see something and pay for a ticket it comes. If they don't come - don't blame the audience.” One thing is sure. When an institution begins to discern an inadequacy in its own customers it is sowing the seeds of its collapse.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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