Wednesday 28 January 2015

Shorts: in the club

[or: the unexpected virtue of authority]

Jake Orr has written a thing. The gist of his thing is the question: “theatre is not a club, so why do we make it feel that way?”  To which my first two responses are: “who’s ‘we’?” and then: “we don’t”.

This question was prompted by taking his new boyfriend, Jack (who is a personal trainer and “a culturally engaged guy; he used to do acting at school, he loves art, he goes to the cinema”), to see Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Events. Afterwards he tweeted: “[Jack] feels that most contemporary is for a club, and he isn’t part of that club because he doesn’t understand how contemporary theatre is made and what it is for.”

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “contemporary theatre” here, since theoretically it means “any theatre made now” right? As such, is The Changeling *more* “contemporary” than A Series... because it opened last week, rather than last year. Or, if it’s stuff that’s entirely new, then Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem (snigger) will be most contemporary when it opens at the NT. But I’m guessing it’s an attempt to define some sort of genre. A genre which Jake seems almost at pains to package up as “difficult”.

There’s been quite a long discussion of the post already on Jake’s Facebook wall, with Jon Bradfield making a lot of very good points last night, not least related to the particularly difficult dynamic that springs up when taking a non-theatre-involved significant other to see *any theatre at all*, because it’s your professional life. So you – the theatre professional – kind of need the theatre to be brilliant to justify the amount of time you spend on it, and they – the person who doesn’t work in theatre – well, you’ve just taken them to work, haven’t you? So they feel anxious about fitting in, saying the right thing, etc. As such, I think that’s really where the discussion should have stopped. I don’t really think this is a conversation about theatre, but about taking your partner to work.

However, since the question has been framed, it’s probably worth thinking about a bit. There are a number of approaches. I was *incredibly surprised* earlier this month by Lois Keidan’s Guardian blog in which she candidly suggests: “the problem with the internet is that the underground arts scene – that safe space where risk, dissent and difference are possible – is now only a click away”, or, more bluntly: “The promise of great art for everyone doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything. It means that if you do want to see something funded by the public purse, you are entitled to do so. But increasingly it seems that we all have different understandings of what entitlement means. There are those who expect that whatever alternative cultures they encounter through social media must comply with their own aesthetic or moral framework. They feel entitled, not just to enter spaces and places where they do not necessarily belong, but also to demand censure and closure if they don’t like what they find there.”

That strikes me as a rare admission: theatre companies go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the extents to which they are accessible and comprehensible to all. And I’ll admit that the notion of a space where someone or other “does not belong” unsettles me.

But, let’s look at the facts of this case a bit. No one is going to deny that Britain is a monstrously unequal society, and equality of opportunity is vital to both any kind of arts scene and any society worthy of the name. The opportunities for someone childless with a reasonably paid job in London to see theatre are almost infinitely more than those of an unemployed parent in Shrewsbury (for example). These are simple facts of economics and logistics and they are issues that urgently need to be addressed.

However, these are not relevant factors here: Jack has a job (probably a better paid job than a lot of people in theatre), personal freedom, geographical proximity, and is already an educated cultural consumer of art and cinema. At which point the question becomes: why does “contemporary” theatre feel like “a club” *to him*?

Given the above factors, I wonder if the conclusion to draw isn’t simply either: “because you choose to see it that way” or “because your partner might have unwittingly made it feel that way” (we’re none of us perfect, after all. And Jake does probably know *everyone* involved in Secret Theatre, so that’s already going to make it seem like a bit of a daunting closed shop – although, hardly Jake’s fault, he’s been working in the industry for five years and everyone knows and likes him). Leaving aside option (b), I do wonder what, if anything, can be done about option (a).

On one level, I do think theatres should be at pains to make everyone feel as materially welcome as possible – the cheapest tickets, the most egalitarian booking systems, the widest possible advertising, and perhaps even useful info in programmes about how the “uninitiated” might want to think about approaching more difficult work written clear, jargon-free prose. At the same time, I’m deeply resistant to the idea that *the art* has to change/needs to change. Least of all to people who don’t get a thing the first time they encounter it. I mean, Christ, I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with Forced Entertainment’s 1998 show Pleasure (my first encounter with the group) when I saw it. I think, as a complete novice, I would have found an explanation by group of what they were driving at any why both fascinating and invaluable. I wouldn’t have felt patronised, I’d have felt that my incomprehension was reasonable, and, oh. look, here were a few pointers.

So, yes, while I think it is incumbent on people who turn up to performances not to assume a conspiracy against them, so much as understand that – of course – communities do grow up around things – especially more marginal things. Not necessarily exclusive communities, but communities nonetheless, I also think that maybe we in the theatre might occasionally do well to remember what it was like when we first turned up at things with no reference points, and knowing no one. I think it’s fine, sometimes even necessary, to keep on making difficult work, but I don’t think it breaks any rules of “difficult art club” to just have a few pointers flagging up the stuff that other audience members already know.

Relatedly, I don’t think I would ever have developed such a passion for mainland Northern and Eastern European work if I hadn’t experienced it in the company of colleagues who were already experts and who could explain at least their take on why the work was like it was, the artist’s history, references that struck them, and so on.

As such, unexpectedly (and I absolutely promise I didn’t realise that this was where this piece was going to end up when I started it), Jack’s predicament on first seeing A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts heavily underlines the imperative necessity for good, clear, comprehensive, comprehensible criticism. Criticism which remembers to explain what the critic thinks she’s seen – and a sketch of why it is the way it is – as well as their opinion of it.


Unknown said...

And as you said, Jack’s predicament on first seeing A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts heavily underlines the imperative necessity for good, clear, comprehensive, comprehensible programme notes - let's face it, that's *not* what we usually get is it? I find - more often than not - the text designed to draw me in ends up making me cross the show off the list of 'things to see'.

Max Barton said...

Hi Andrew,

I feel compelled to comment because of an amazing discussion I took part in at the BAC yesterday about audiences and how welcome they do or don't feel at the theatre.

I agree completely about the art not needing to change to appeal to everyone, or indeed to go to any lengths not to feel esoteric in subject matter, aesthetic etc., and so largely as a response to Jake's article I'm with you.

But what has come up this weekend at D&D and then at this other open space is that there's a big conversation to be had about what it feels like to be in an audience. The starting point was relaxed (or what we've now additionally dubbed extra-live) performances, put in place specifically for audience members who for some reason find it difficult to conform to current 'normal' theatre etiquette. But far from this being a conversation only about people with autism, tourettes, down's syndrome or those traditionally thought to need such performances, it became (with big thanks to Maddy Costa) a far larger discussion about cultural background. Theatre Royal Stratford East was held up as an example of a theatre with a very different audience demographic, where the experience of being in an audience is far less uptight.

The point being made, as a massive backlash to that theatre charter that went around talking about why silence is crucial in a theatre, is that perhaps seeing theatre (however serious/confusing/inaccessible/wild in its form) as a more fun place to be on a simple practical level might begin to shift the cultural inequality involved.

Anyway, I'm working with D&D to organise some events to talk to a whole cross section of people not from the industry to pose some of these questions. I'd love you and Jake to be involved.