A longing to share

The New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is moving into a new phase now, as you can tell from all the brilliant posts on here by theatre-makers who have gone on think-missions to the towns where, it’s hoped, community-specific works will slowly be created. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work on the first phase, encouraging new conversations between theatre-makers, critics and audiences. Two events so far have been particularly important to me in demonstrating how fruitful this dialogue can be: one I’ve already written about on here, the bubbly-fun Theatre Salon hosted by Lorna Rees in Poole following a performance of The Victorian in the Wall (which one of the performers, Matt Steer, gratifyingly describes elsewhere on this blog as “better than any post show thing I’ve ever been involved with”). The other was at ARC in Stockton back at the beginning of May; although I didn’t have time to write about it then, I’ve been hymning it ever since.

It wasn’t just the theatre club that struck me, it was the entire day. I arrived in Stockton early enough to have a walk around the centre of town. I was expecting the worst, if I’m honest; instead, it came across as a really likeable place. “But what about all the boarded-up shops?” someone asked me. “The preponderance of pubs, the drug addicts?” I live in a very muddled-up bit of south London, rich and poor in close proximity; I’m on greeting terms with the druggie who hangs around outside Costcutter but rarely-to-never talk to my neighbours; and I have three bookies within a few minutes’ walk of my house, two of which are on the high street, which is otherwise cluttered with competing mini-supermarkets, hodge-podge cheapo shops, charity shops, a pawn shop, fast-food chains and cocktail bars. Where’s the difference from Stockton? Just because it’s got middle-class cocktail bars and not pubs doesn’t make my high street superior: to suggest otherwise is class prejudice of the filthiest kind.

So I liked Stockton. And I really liked Julie Dove, Fuel’s local engagement specialist, who told me about the weird layout of Stockton – wealthy in the suburbs, deprived in the centre – and her mother’s fury when her own nearby village was swallowed up by gentrification and she couldn’t find a basic white loaf for less than £2.50 in the bakers any more. Julie took me to the garishly bright regeneration centre on the high street, and to A Way Out, a charity set up a few years ago to help women who have become stuck in a life of drug addiction and prostitution to find their way back into education, jobs, decent housing, hope. The spokeswoman we met there told us that for the women who come to A Way Out, ARC is nothing more than a big glass building to meet people outside; even if they did pluck up the courage to go in, the well-heeled clientele looking down their noses would soon make it clear they weren’t welcome. And yet, two of the women had been brought the night before to see a performance of Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart. It was their first time going to a theatre, and they loved it. They hadn’t known theatre could be like that.

It would be really easy, Julie told me, to drive around all the village suburbs of Stockton and chat to their genteel inhabitants about ARC, encouraging them to experiment a bit more. But where’s the challenge in that? Where’s the satisfaction of coaxing a new audience whose lives could genuinely be changed by theatre? She’d rather, she told me, bring in two people from the council estates up the road from ARC, than 52 people from the suburbs. Because theatre isn’t just for a certain group in society: it’s for everyone. And that message is more important to communicate than ever.

The thing is, you can’t just tell the uninitiated to come inside and then abandon them. Even the friendliest front-of-house staff can seem intimidating when you don’t feel like you fit in. And who is there to talk to if you walk out having not understood the show, or found it difficult, or traumatic? This is what I love about the Theatre Club at the Young Vic, established by Lily Einhorn last year for participants in the Two Boroughs project. Nearly every time I’ve been to it, someone has said they don’t go to other theatres in London, because they don’t feel posh enough. And they don’t talk to other people about theatre, because they don’t feel smart enough. Only at the Young Vic do they feel at home.

In some ways, ARC feels like a really homely place. It has a vibrant programme of work for children, and a really enticing programme of activities for the over-55s. And yet, there’s also something off-putting about it. The cafe seemed quite pricey to me, particularly the biscuits; I felt guilty for doing it, but bought my dinner at Marks and Spencer’s round the corner. As far as I could tell, there’s no dedicated playspace for kids, while the oldies dominating the public spaces keep teens and twentysomethings at bay. And when the show ends, everyone just hunches their shoulders and heads out into the night: unless I’m mistaken, the bar doesn’t stay open for them.

The night I was there, the bar did stay open, for a Dialogue Theatre Club – the events I’ve been running (following the Young Vic model) with my friend Jake Orr, opening up space for people to talk about a show, not with the makers but just with each other. I had a good feeling about the ARC club, because the show being discussed was Uninvited Guests’ Make Better Please, an extraordinary, challenging, noisy, furiously political piece that looks everything that’s awful in the world square in the eye before exorcising it in a punk-rock frenzy then replacing it with quiet, delicate stories of hope. You form enough of a bond with your fellow-audience members, poring over newspapers together, then poring over humanity, that by the end, you’re curious: what did they all think?

Not everyone stayed for the Theatre Club – there were a few schoolchildren who had to go home, a couple of others with things to do. But the 12 of us who did stay sat talking intently for over an hour; every so often I’d notice someone from Uninvited Guests, otherwise occupied with clearing the theatre, peek round the door and marvel that we were still at it. We talked about how the show had made us feel about our media, and our consumption of media, the narratives of optimism and negativity foisted on us, but that we also foist on others. We talked about how it felt to be assigned imaginative roles in the gruesome stories we’d read, of kidnapping, murder, accidental death. We marvelled at the structure, the care with which we’d been taken on a journey, the breath of fresh air when the exorcism ends, the loveliness of sharing hope. And then one woman, who had been fidgeting uncomfortably for the first 30 minutes or so, finally felt compelled to speak. She hadn’t liked it at all. She’d felt hectored and even attacked by it. She’d found the full-frontal, visceral, obnoxiously loud exorcism upsetting. She had been abused in her life, and it brought the horror of that experience flooding back.

It was a view on Make Better Please I hadn’t anticipated – one that made me, and everyone else singing its praises, see the show in a whole new light. And we were even more startled when another, older woman, who had also sat hunched and silent, was encouraged by the first woman’s confession to make her own: she, too, had been abused in her life, and she, too, had found the show very difficult to watch. And, unlike the first woman, she hadn’t come with a friend. She didn’t have anyone to help her decompress, work through her response to the show, and let it go. She was alone.

I love that theatre takes me to difficult places. But I can’t just absorb it: I have to process it. Sometimes it’s in conversation with friends, sometimes it’s in my blog. The atmosphere in the Theatre Club shifted after those two women spoke: we discussed the responsibility of theatre-makers to their audiences, how important it was to invest in the sharing of hope at the end – and how useful it was to be able to continue the audience community outside of the show, swapping thoughts, finding out more about each other. One of the attendees later wrote a review of Make Better Please, with a few lines on the discussion, which he’d found “fascinating”, in which he said: “I would be delighted if it were to happen after every performance ever.” So, why doesn’t it?

Since that night, I’ve thought a lot about the offers that theatres make to their audiences, and the offers they don’t make. Most of them revolve around money, or rather, extracting money from audiences then making them feel a bit privileged: pay this much and you’ll get to buy your tickets earlier (for a small discount, if you’re lucky); pay this much and you can dress up in uncomfortable clothes and come and feel awkward at a champagne do. And then there’s the offers theatres make around talking to artists: in the auditorium, in clearly demarcated spaces, apart. Where are the membership schemes that say: join our club and we’ll invite you to a monthly tea party, where you can meet other members and the artists we’ve programmed and chat informally over biscuits and cake? Where are the membership schemes that say: hey, we’ve started our own discussion group! Don’t worry if you can’t afford to buy a drink as well as your ticket – we’ll give you one for free. It’s not your money we’re after. It’s your company.

I bumped into Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC, in Edinburgh last month, who told me something that, quite honestly, made me want to hug her. Since my visit, they’ve begun experimenting with new ways of getting artists to interact with potential audiences: she’s been putting theatre-makers together with local creative-writing groups, and is about to try hosting a tea party, for people to come in and get to know the people she’s programmed. She told a story about Daniel Bye, who has been working a lot at ARC this year, sitting down in the cafe with a group of over-55s who attend ARC regularly, not for theatre, for creative classes. They asked him a whole bunch of questions, none about his show, all about him personally: when and where he was born, if he has siblings, if he’s married, if he has kids. They didn’t want to know about his work. They were looking for the personal connection that would make them think: yes, I like you, I’m interested in what you do.

Interactions like these are really easy to make happen, aren’t they? So are theatre clubs, and discussion groups, and anything else that breaks down the barriers between the people who make theatre and the people who watch it. All it takes is a different way of thinking about theatre: not as an economy, with tickets to sell that need to be bought, but as stories being told and listened to, by people with hearts and lives and a longing to share.

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