A quick introduction from Maddy Costa: Over the course of this week, I’m going to be running a selection of pieces on this blog thinking about relationships between theatre (particularly buildings) and audiences, trying to build up a picture of some best, or at least brilliant, practice. The first is a guest post by Lily Einhorn, who manages the Two Boroughs project at the Young Vic in London and also works freelance as a creative practitioner and evaluator. Lily’s one of the people I admire most in this industry, for a lot of reasons, but particularly for coming up with the idea for Theatre Club, the informal post-show discussions that work like book groups, which I’ve also been hosting as part of NTiYN. Her work is focused on creating a sense of community within and around the Young Vic: here’s how and why she does it.
by Lily Einhorn
I work in a theatre. Each day I arrive at the entrance, walk through the doors and into the foyer. I have a quick chat with the welcome team sitting behind the box office counter, get my red fob out of my bag and tap myself through the door marked ‘backstage’. I belong there.
This sense of belonging carries me through into other theatres. When I visit them I know how they work. I know which areas are public and which aren’t. I know when the bars are just for the audience. I know when they aren’t. Theatres are familiar to me. They smell a certain way. They have certain people busying through in show blacks. I know I can ignore the first call to sit in my seat if I want to linger. I know I need to put my drink in a plastic cup if I want to take it into the auditorium.
Recently I was given some tickets to the ROH and suddenly I found myself in unfamiliar territory. Where I didn’t know. I didn’t know I had to show my ticket to a security guard who would look at me askance as I entered. I didn’t know my husband – a theatre director – would be the only man not in a suit. I didn’t know when I was allowed to clap. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see a single black person in the audience. Knowledge is power. I do know that. And I felt its absence. The creeping embarrassment of making an accidental faux pas. My own middle class, white, educated to MA level otherness. And all I could wonder was what my participants at the Young Vic would make of this beautiful, bewildering place with its money and its hats and its ‘bravos’.
At the Young Vic I work in the Taking Part department where we have three strands of work: Schools and Colleges, Participation (young people) and Two Boroughs. With my colleague, Kirsten Adam, I run this last strand, working with individuals and community groups from across our two home boroughs, our office sitting on either side of the dividing line. We run week-long workshops and evening workshops, sessions on stage on our sets to explore the jobs and cogs backstage, Theatre Club, tours of the building, and large scale community shows working with dedicated community groups with professional creative and production teams. But the basis for all this work, all this making, is watching. We are privileged in Taking Part to give away 10% of the Young Vic’s tickets to the local community. For free. Thousands of tickets per year. To sold out shows, to A View from the Bridge with its returns queue that snaked around the building from the wee small hours, to A Streetcar Named Desire with its alien-investigating star. Such is the commitment to our participants from the theatre that we book in our tickets before the shows go on sale. We cannot invite anyone into our theatre if we are not asking them to watch the shows. We can’t ask people to take a risk on something if they have to pay for it. And we cannot collaborate on a show if no one has ever seen one.
The tickets are the basis for everything we do. Of course they are. They are an invitation into another world, another time, another story. For us the ticket is the start of a relationship. We do not just leave them at box office: we are there, handing them out, welcoming our neighbours in, smiling and hugging and shaking hands and laughing and sometimes fretting over time-keeping. I have heard time and time again that people do not value something if it is free. To my mind this is as redundant an argument as product versus process. Friendship is free. Laughter and time are free. And no one argues with that. The value in the ticket is defined by the manner in which it is given: the value is in the invitation. In the care we take to remind people to come, to call people without email, to make sure everyone’s access requirements are met. In remembering, whenever we can, people’s names. And in making sure that our participants have that powerful knowledge that makes them feel at ease, at home. In reassuring against a dress code. In inviting community groups together, in pointing out where the toilets are and telling them if there’s no interval and they might need to pee first. The important stuff.
Because these members of our audience are important. Not just because it is right that they are there. Morally, politically, right that everyone should have equal access to the arts, but because they enrich the building and the work itself. Theatre can’t exist in a vacuum, without an audience: this is a simple fact about the art form. But if that audience are all the same age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, have the same career path or experiences, the auditorium is less vibrant, the show is less dynamic, the conversation between the seats and the stage is less unpredictable. And we all lose as a result.
Sometimes the relationship starts the other way around. Making first. If we are working on a community show and decide to engage particular community groups we often end up working with people who have had no experience of the arts at all. They come, speculatively, to outreach workshops and gradually involve themselves in the project. When we work like this we tend to take the sessions out to them, to their spaces, before bringing them into the theatre towards the end for rehearsals and tech sessions. By the time they walk through into our foyer they know us and they know why they are here. After the project has finished they often return to become regular theatre-goers. Rather than feeling like the paying customers’ poor second cousins, our participants have a unique sense of ownership over the building. They’ve been backstage, they’ve sat in the greenroom. It is their theatre.
But more than that, they have a sense of what theatre can do, how powerful it can be, and what effect involvement in it can have on their lives. Recently I finished working with an extraordinary group of female carers. We made a show in response to our main house show Happy Days – one woman unable to escape – and looked at what escape might mean to these women, what freedom was, how movement and dance expressed the unexpressed. The show, Turning a Little Further, had a professional production and creative team including director Laura Keefe, movement director Coral Messam and lyricist Francesca Beard. It was designed by Fly Davis. And it was joyful. Tearfully, painfully, breathlessly, heartbreakingly joyful. Not just the sessions – with the laughter and the stories and the biscuits – but the fact it was theatre. That we made a piece of communicative art together. That we strove to make the art as full of craft and skill and expertise as any other piece of art in the building. One of the carers said afterwards, ‘You came crashing into our lives for five months and you showed us all that we are real, our lives are real.’
Putting their voices on stage, filling the space with their bodies, changed the space of the theatre. It will forever be a space where those stories were told, where an unpaid female carer stood on a stage and proclaimed, ‘I shouted so loudly I lost my voice. I’m still learning to speak again.’ It will forever be a place that put ‘real’ women on to the stage and in re-creating their thoughts and feelings, validated them. Made them more real.
That is what theatre can do, if it is allowed. Our Two Boroughs project allows it to happen. Again and again, with people from drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes, with sex workers, with elders. And it gives people a sense of belonging to a wider theatrical community that flourishes because it is so diverse. No one should walk into any theatre not knowing. We try to make sure that our participants know that.