by Maddy Costa
As an outsider, and a non-driver, and a somewhat anxious woman, the journey to the Lakeside in Colchester feels significantly more intimidating than I suspect it is for people who live here, and drive, and don’t feel scared walking on the edge of murky parkland after dark. If I were a student here, I tell myself, from the safety of the back seat of a cab, I’d see everything programmed at the Lakeside. Then I remember that when I actually was a student, I barely even bothered seeing the theatre work my friends were making: chances are, student-me wouldn’t go to the Lakeside at all.
Sure enough, the auditorium – capacity 217 – is less than half full for Inua Ellams‘ The 14th Tale, touring here as part of the NTiYN project. As always in rooms that are less than half full for work that is intricate, funny, thoughtful, tender, revealing, optimistic, I feel sad and confused and a little bit angry that there aren’t more people here to appreciate it. Sad because I think people are missing out on something wonderful, confused because I don’t know yet how to entice them along, a little bit angry because I’m pig-headedly sure someone else does know and hasn’t taken the time to act upon that knowledge. Rationally, I realise it’s not as simple as that.
The 14th Tale is an autobiographical romp giddy with mischief and mayhem: Inua as a child, raiding the buffet at a family party; Inua slightly older, puffed up with pride as he invents the Bible story he didn’t read for homework; Inua arriving in London, struggling to assimilate, electrified by the discovery that the cane is no longer an accepted punishment in British schools, running riot, exhausting even his own capacity for disobedience. He describes himself as a trouble-maker from a long line of trouble-makers, and as he wonders what havoc his future son might wreak, I think of my own family of trouble-makers, my father who at the age of eight walked from his village in Cyprus to the Troodos mountains to see snow with his own eyes, my brother whose favourite game at the age of eight involved a roll of toilet paper and a box of matches, the son that has come to me, only four but already a cheeky blighter with an angel’s smile. Now and then I glance at the people in the audience and wonder: what are your stories? What rules did you break? And if you weren’t the trouble-maker in your family, who was?
I’d like to ask them, but the post-show event doesn’t make room for that. The discussion follows the traditional format of a panel of talkers – that’s Inua and me – being asked questions, mostly about writing, first by an interviewer (Anne Langford, NTiYN project manager) and then by the audience. It adheres to the existing model beautifully. But this isn’t a conversation; people are invited to ask questions, but in a way that doesn’t give them room to speak.
Among the show’s audience were members of the university’s Afro-Caribbean society, who came on the encouragement of (I think) Jordana Golbourn, who is working locally for Fuel on audience development. They came because they thought it would be a nice change from what they do usually – a social activity like going out bowling – and perhaps a bit more grown-up. They showed no intention of staying for the post-show event until Inua asked them to do so. I suspect it’s because there is very little that feels “social” about going to the theatre when, having already spent an hour sitting together in silence, you then have to continue to sit in silence for another 40 minutes. If theatre is going to feel like a conversation, it’s not enough to talk at people about it: we have to talk with them.
The post-show event I’d love to hold after a performance of The 14th Tale would eliminate the hierarchy of maker, critic and audience, and invite everyone to sit and talk equally. Rather than have the audience ask me questions, I’d like to ask them questions: what was the naughtiest thing you did as a child? What did you get away with? What was the worst that happened when you got caught? What did The 14th Tale bring back for you?
In between seeing that show and writing this, I read the Live Art UK document Getting It Out There, and was struck by Bryony Kimmings‘ description of how she built up her audience in Manchester. The words “I go out for drinks” come up a lot. She isn’t “developing an audience”. She’s making friends. And you don’t make friends by talking incessantly about yourself. You have to do some listening, too.