Talking About Theatre


In the space of a few weeks earlier this year, I heard two anecdotes about theatre and audiences which have circled my brain ever since. First, during an interview about Fun Palaces, Sarah-Jane Rawlings told me about an encounter she had while running the Royal Exchange’s education programme. After a youth drama session, she asked one of the kids involved if his mum was coming to pick him up from the theatre; he replied no, she wouldn’t know what to wear. Then, at a house event not long after, one of the speakers remembered a man who had to walk around his local theatre three times before he could bring himself to step inside to buy a ticket.

This pair of stories regularly haunts me. As someone who accesses theatre spaces on an almost daily basis, it’s all too easy to forget how intimidating they can be. And right now, those two anecdotes are joined in my mind by a crowd of other statements, stories and assumptions, all making me fitfully turn over my thoughts about theatre, access and audiences.

There’s Maddy Costa, more than a year ago now, making the distinction between “speaking” theatre (with all the specialist vocabulary that implies) and simply talking about it. There’s all the brilliant work that Maddy is doing with Jake Orr over at Dialogue to encourage and facilitate the latter among audiences.

There’s Maddy again, more recently, recalling her encounter with an audience member who suggested that the way she – we – discuss theatre is what makes it seem elitist. Us critics, bloggers, whatever label we go by, are the ones who – to borrow Maddy’s words – “make theatre sound like hard work”.

There’s a similar conversation during a particularly fraught and difficult long table discussion at the festival organised by Dialogue last month. A couple of people go up to the table and say frankly that the conversation that is taking place is intimidating, exclusive and alienatingly intellectual. This sparks a really knotty and sometimes painful debate, during which I wonder repeatedly about whether to take a seat at the table. Aren’t I just part of the problem? Does my voice really need to be heard? In the end, I decide to spend the festival doing more listening than talking, and it feels right.

There’s Tim Walker getting me riled up, not so much with his dismissal of online critics as with his suggestion that theatre and theatre criticism are both products to be sold to the wealthy, middle-class and middle-aged. The implication being that it’s just not “for” most people.

And then there’s Janet Suzman, with her astonishing assertion that “theatre is a white invention”. Beyond the patent and quite frankly racist inaccuracy of that claim, Suzman’s comments seem to me to reveal three things: 1) white privilege still overwhelmingly dictates mainstream cultural discourse, to the extent that someone like Suzman can even begin to believe that theatre is particular to white culture; 2) underlying such a belief, there’s an offensive assumption that cultural tastes – and particularly those of non-white cultures – are homogenous; 3) linked to that assumption, there is too often a simplistic, reductive and patronising attitude towards audience development, epitomised by Suzman’s sweeping remarks about “catering” for certain demographics.

As all those things tumble through my mind, I’ve thought back and forth and back and forth over the last couple of weeks about writing and publishing this (whatever this is turning into). Because – to be brutally honest about my misgivings – who needs another beneficiary of white, middle-class privilege harping on smugly about the need for diversity and inclusion in the arts? Like at the Dialogue long table, I worry that perhaps I’m not the right person to be kicking off about this, that perhaps it might be more useful to listen to and amplify the voices of others (like Naima Khan or Meg Vaughan) who have interesting, urgent, considered thoughts to add to the discussion. At the same time, however – and this is a point that Naima rightly raises – staying silent implies complicity in and wilful ignorance of all those assumptions which continue to haunt and frustrate me and which, more importantly, determine who is included and excluded from certain forms of culture.

As I’ve said before (hard as it might be for me in my enthusiasm for the art form to believe), theatre isn’t necessarily for everyone, in the same way that football isn’t necessarily for everyone. My attitude to the latter is pretty much the rest of my family’s attitude to the former: I’ll happily watch it on the odd occasion, but it isn’t really my cup of tea. And that’s fine. But theatre should be there for everyone: equally available and accessible to all who might – and might not – gain something from it. That means making theatre buildings as welcoming as possible; it means making theatre affordable and easy to access; it means letting people know that it’s happening and that they might be interested in it; it means avoiding lazy, offensive assumptions about different demographics and what they might want to see; it means opening up a dialogue with potential and existing audiences; it means talking about theatre in a way that makes it sound interesting and fun rather than elite and exclusive.

It’s that last point that I’m particularly (sometimes agonisingly) preoccupied with. There is of course work still to be done when it comes to theatre spaces, their accessibility, and who and what gets represented on their stages. But the surrounding discourse feeds into the same set of structures and ultimately influences, in however invisible a way, who gets admitted or shut out by those structures. How is theatre being discussed? Who is discussing it? What is being discussed and what is being ignored? What assumptions is that discussion – knowingly or unknowingly – founded on?

One of the most worrying things about Suzman’s comments is her implication that addressing subject matter that “caters” for different groups – as though everyone of the same race has the same taste, or is exclusively interested in themes related to their own ethnicity – is enough to cultivate new audiences. There is an important argument for representation, but what gets on stage is just one of a complicated web of factors that determine who attends theatre. The assumption that putting on work “about” a particular group (that “about” being a problematic term in itself) solves the problem just lets theatres off the hook, making it possible for people like Suzman and Walker to essentially dismiss the entire endeavour by claiming that only a certain group of (white, middle-class) people will ever be interested. Once you believe that, why would you bother trying to open the doors for anyone else? “Catering” for different audiences is not enough. How theatre is talked about in the wider culture, and thus the popular perception of it, is just as much a part of this matrix of inclusion and exclusion.

So what does that actually mean? In her post, Meg pointed me to something that playwright Vinay Patel said on Twitter in response to the Suzman fiasco: “we need to be talking about theatre like it’s there to be consumed as culture not cherished as art”. The word “consumed” makes me shudder a little bit, but I think he’s absolutely right. Theatre needs to be discussed in a way that makes it seem available, rather than shut away behind a barrier of big, reverent words.

When frustratedly responding to the whole ridiculous Tim Walker thing, I shouted about the need to discuss theatre as if it might actually mean something, always asking the implicit question “why is it important?” As I think more on it, though, I want to add a footnote. Yes, let’s talk about why theatre is important, why it might be relevant to the world outside the auditorium or inside each of its spectators. But perhaps we should also be asking “why is it interesting?” Because “important” can be one of those off-putting words, in the same vein as saying “I really should go to the theatre” (it’s depressing how often I hear that one). That sense of obligation and self-improvement suggests school trips and dull assignments, it suggests the gatekeepers of high art instructing everyone else on what to see. And as I put it at the beginning of the year after seeing Not I and thinking about the discourse of “hard work” surrounding it, framing theatre in this way is only likely to be elitist and alienating.

At the same time, it’s a fine line between opening up the conversation and sounding like a patronising twat. Part of me also instinctively resists the anti-intellectualism that seems to prevail in our culture and society today. Why shouldn’t we dig deeper, think harder, question more? (And yes, if I’m being totally honest, of course it’s nice to occasionally feel intelligent) This is where I regularly tie myself in knots, struggling with two seemingly opposed desires as a writer. Most of the time, I admit, I probably fail at both.

But there’s not necessarily a stark choice between intellectual snobbery and appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s perhaps not a question of whether or not to engage with those more difficult ideas, but rather of how to engage with those ideas. The best thinkers and writers – at least in my opinion – are those who can take the most complex of concepts and articulate them in the clearest of terms, losing as little as possible along the way. It also, like at that Dialogue event, has to do with both talking and listening: welcoming feedback, being willing to enter into a conversation – however difficult – about what might come across as elitist or excluding.

Something that Stewart Pringle once said has stayed with me. He explained (to badly paraphrase) that the way he thinks of what he does, whether making or writing about theatre, is just as sharing stuff that he thinks is really awesome. I think criticism has other roles too – roles to do with questioning the art form, with sitting somewhere in the blurry space between artist and audience – but I wonder if this is the one that we might all aspire towards more consistently. Because who doesn’t want to hear about awesome stuff?

So there’s a New Year’s resolution – or perhaps more of a challenge. Let’s think more actively about who we’re including and excluding. Let’s stop and ask ourselves who we implicitly suggest that theatre is “for” when we write and talk about it. Let’s try to avoid being elitist without (ugh, another phrase I hate) “dumbing down”. Let’s appreciate the complexity while embracing the fun. I don’t yet know exactly what any of this looks like, and yes I’m bound to fall short a lot of the time, but surely it’s worth a try? And, lastly, let’s hope that we don’t need to write any more of these bloody blog posts about theatre criticism …

Photo: Dialogue’s Talking/Making/Taking Part festival.