I’ve spent nearly 4 months trying to write a blog post. It’s called something to the effect of ‘Are We All Just Talking To Ourselves?’ and it’s probably a less eloquent, more angry version of Catherine Love’s very well expressed blog from last week on writing about theatre.
Anyone who’s had the misfortune of finding themselves in the pub/at the theatre with me in these recent months is unlikely to have escaped the fact that the reason my piece remains unwritten is simple; I haven’t yet found a way to elucidate what I’m trying to say without being angry, a little unreasonable, and incredibly frustrated.
Having seen Meg Vaughan and, decidedly nailing it on the head, Stella Duffy, largely echoing how I’m feeling, I’ve realised that I’m not going to write that blog, I’m going to write this one. (If you haven’t read either of those pieces, I cannot recommend enough that you do).
The main thrust of what I had been wanting to say was that all we do in the critical community is talk to each other. And I know that’s inflammatory to say; but we do, and we’re extremely good at it. While that’s a wonderful thing, and I actively enjoy and benefit from it, it’s not doing anything for anyone who doesn’t already have access to theatre; and by ‘access’ I mean now and for the rest of this piece the sense that theatre is ‘for’ us, that we have both the ability (financial or through comps) to attend it regularly and feel comfortable doing so because we have been welcomed into theatrical spaces by someone we know, because we work in them or because we have been raised to feel like they are not intimidating.
I did not always have this access. I came to it through joining the comically underfunded drama society at my uni (again, a privilege but something it took me a year to work up to doing). By going to Sixty-Six Books at the Bush in 2011 (and I remember asking Facebook whether I should even go – I was quite scared of going into a theatre space for 24 hours with no one I knew) where people like Lucy Oliver-Harrison and Veronica Humphris made the effort to come and speak to me, to make me feel welcome, to introduce me to others. I was brushing my teeth next to someone from the board of the Donmar at 6am. These people were determined that this was a space I could and should feel comfortable in, and every one of them had something positive to say about my wanting to work in theatre – they are honestly the reason I took it further when I walked out of that building the next day. I had never been told growing up that theatre was ‘for’ me; here were euphorically sleep deprived people determined that it could be for anyone, and a building I had lived in for a day and a night that felt like ‘mine’ in some small way.
I came to it through platforms like StageWon (now no more), The Public Reviews and One Stop Arts letting me trundle along and clumsily review productions, and build up an understanding of what this world meant.
I came to it by becoming friends with Catherine not long afterwards – who resolutely chipped away at my fears about going to and writing about theatre for the next few years and hasn’t stopped since.
I came to it through Improbable giving me a free ticket to D&D when I couldn’t afford to go (which I paid forward the next year and would love to advocate that more people do) and Stella Duffy offering on Twitter to talk to me if I didn’t know anyone else there. Because that’s what theatre often feels like from the outside; a group of people having a conversation about something that’s probably brilliant, but you’re not sure you’d understand it if you tried to join in, and you don’t have anyone to bring you in.
I think what I’m trying to say is that this isn’t a door that, once opened, stays that way. Or at least it didn’t for me. Someone had to open it for me, I stuck my foot in, kind of watched from there for a bit, and was eventually coaxed in slowly but surely by a variety of determined people. Sometimes I still feel like I’m on the fringes. It had nothing to do with my desire to be part of theatre and everything to do with my financial and what I perceived to be my social and educational ability to access it (i.e. if you haven’t studied it, if you haven’t been to uni with certain people [if you haven’t been to uni at all], if you can’t talk about particular playwrights, what are you doing here?) I’ve had arguments with people about these barriers and all I can really say is; these were mine, and I may be lone and cantankerous, but since we’re all still having these conversations about inclusivity and outreach, I somehow doubt it.
God this is getting longer than I intended. Sorry.
It’s on us; all of us. We’re still just talking to each other – even about this, asking what we can do. I don’t think any of us holds the answer. I think the people that we’d like to see in our theatres do. We so often wind up pointing fingers in all directions – venues, marketing, makers, festivals, NPOs; these groups need to be doing more to bring in a new audience.
(Well, yes, but not just them).
We all do.
It’s not up to us to sit around and write about it. It’s not up to us to wait for change. We’ve got to learn from what Fun Palaces did on a large scale and what places like Dance Gazette have done on a smaller one; physically bring people in. I feel like what we’re doing right now is writing a note, sticking it next to a pot of jam on the floor of the forest, stringing a cage up above it and waiting; as though these audiences are mythical creatures that we somehow need to attract and ensnare and keep by enchantment.
We need to stop just telling people about theatre. It’s not that people ‘should’ go, like they ‘should’ eat their greens. We don’t just need to eulogise and market at people, we need to bring them along. Each and every one of us can do this. Bring someone into a space, make them feel like it’s somewhere they are entitled to be, and they’re allowed to love, hate or feel entirely like they didn’t understand what they saw there. It doesn’t mean they’ll immediately move in to BAC, but that’s not the point. Theatre needs to feel like something people don’t have to be qualified to have an opinion on; it needs to feel like film and television and we need to stop sitting on it like some glorious oracle that’s sacred and only understood by the chosen, then ponderously stroking our beards and wondering why everyone making and going to it looks and sounds the same (Naima Khan has addressed this particularly well).
I’m thinking especially about critics here. I’m thoroughly and completely guilty of bringing a] other critics and b] friends who could and would buy a ticket to the performance as my +1s to press nights. I’ve gone as other people’s +1s. Often this is motivated by my fear of falling out of ‘the conversation’ by not seeing enough work. I’ve seen less than half of most people’s top 10s of 2014, either because I was working at the time or simply couldn’t manage the time/money to see all the work in question (theatre’s an expensive business to keep up with). That’s a fear I want to trash from now on.
Imagine if each and every one of us took a friend/colleague/relative who doesn’t normally go to theatre as our +1 to everything for a month. A year. The rest of our careers.
It feels a little intimidating (again) to be issuing a challenge from my small corner of the internet, but I’m going to.
It’s on you.
You make the change.
You bring new people in.
You change the way we talk about theatre – not just on blogs but in the world.
You get someone a ticket and go with them.
You make theatre feel like something that other people can enjoy and attend and make if they want to, without making them feel as though they’re your ‘project’ and they’re being frogmarched to the doors of the National.
It’s simplistic, it’s barely the beginning of what needs to be a massive sea change, but that’s my plan – not for 2015, but indefinitely.