Seeing differently

Every so often, something is published online that radiates such ill feeling I take the self-preserving decision to pretend it doesn’t exist. The Theatre Charter is such a thing. From what I can tell, it’s a po-faced and peculiarly joyless delineation of “theatre etiquette”, prescribing dos and particularly don’ts for people who “need” to be taught how to behave in a theatre. I know this from reading two terrific ripostes, which describe a much more generous and inclusive approach to thinking about theatre and audiences. The first is by Amber Massie-Blomfield, head of communications at the Albany theatre in London: theatre, she points out, is a live event, and as such ought to be prepared to embrace interruptions. “If the manner in which audiences are engaging with live experiences is changing so profoundly,” she asks, “isn’t it better for the future health of the art form to respond to and embrace that change, rather than attempting to regulate it?

The second is by Annabel Turpin, chief executive at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, one of New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood’s partner venues. “Being forced to sever all connection to the outside world, sit in the dark for the duration of the event, not be allowed to leave, go to the toilet, eat, drink, take anything in or out of my bag and be expected to sit still sounds like some kind of mild torture to me,” she writes. “If that’s how I am expected to behave, I think I’ll give up going to the theatre.” She compares these rules, set out in the Theatre Charter, to the more laidback atmosphere of outdoor performances, where “there are no expectations of how to behave”. Each year, she sees the people of Stockton fill its streets for the work programmed by the Stockton International Riverside Festival – people who happily stand in all weather conditions, “not just watching, but photographing, filming, sharing and critiquing what they see”. Do these same people see work at the ARC? Probably not, she writes – because of what they think the rules are surrounding going to the theatre.

At the end of July I travelled to Margate for a NTiYN conversation, hosted by Turner Contemporary, Margate Theatre Royal and the Clod Ensemble, which invited local residents to talk about what might stop them seeing theatre and/or Fuel’s work. Much of what we talked about was the stuff contained in the Theatre Charter. One woman described how theatre just isn’t on her radar: she prefers the freer environment of gigs, where you can wander up to the bar, have a dance, and no one’s going to frown at you if you have a bit of a chat while you watch. We talked quite a lot about the restrictive architecture of the Theatre Royal, which has barely any social spaces: no foyer to speak of, no outside garden or congregating area, and only one tiny bar tucked at the top of the building. Where do people go when they want to take someone to the theatre for a treat, I wondered? The answer was anywhere but Margate: London most likely, or Canterbury, but not to the local.

Pam Hardiman – the Theatre Royal’s brilliantly irreverent Programme Manager – confessed that her favourite place to sit in her building is up in the gods, the cheap seats where people are more likely to pass each other sweets and respond vocally to what they’re seeing. It made me realise that people who make and write about theatre (myself included) talk a lot about the feeling of community generated in an auditorium, but don’t often acknowledge that it’s a funny kind of community that sits silently in the dark stifling every sound and pretending not to be there. No wonder it doesn’t sound believable to people more used to the community of gig-going.

Gratifyingly, the person least interested in theatre in this conversation said that she would be more likely to want to see a show having had a conversation about it beforehand. It was fascinating listening to Suzy Willson, co-artistic director of Clod Ensemble, talk about their show Red Ladies. Red Ladies notice things, she said. They open people’s eyes to their local environment – the things so close that they’re easy to ignore. I’d really enjoyed watching the show at the South Bank in London a few days earlier with the Theatre Royal team; a lot of it mystified me, but I’d had fun all the same. It’s easy to characterise work that doesn’t yield easily to understanding as “challenging” or “risky”, but Suzy presented it with a different language: that of seeing differently.

Why is any of this important? I could talk in a general way, but the conversation offered up a specific story that illustrates the reason perfectly. We were talking about how important it is for theatre to leave its buildings and come out to other community spaces – places where artists might feel a bit less comfortable, but their habitual users more comfortable. One woman, an older resident, recalled seeing a show a few years ago at the Tom Thumb theatre in Margate; it was the middle of winter, snowing outside, and there was a lot of grumbling when the audience were asked to leave the building and walk through the streets to an installation in a nearby bandstand. There they found a mermaid, singing – and that vision, said the woman, was so extraordinary that she will remember it for the rest of her life. (It just so happened that Jessica Jordan-Wrench, the mermaid in question, now runs the Tom Thumb, and was at the meeting to hear this – much to her flabbergasted delight.)

At the start of August, I travelled with NTiYN again, this time to Stockton for a theatre club on The Roof. It’s the first time I’ve really felt that the participants were frustrated with the book-group format: actually, some of them really did want to interrogate the director and choreographer about what the heck they were doing with that show. (I doubt whether the director in question, David Rosenberg, would have give them the straightforward answers they were looking for: he’s too contrary for that.) Admittedly, not everyone felt this way: one man marvelled at the rest of us struggling to decode the show’s computer-game levels and surreal interludes, saying that he was too content simply enjoying himself to worry about understanding. Having seen the 5.30pm performance, he left the discussion early to make it back to the venue in time for the 8pm.

The Roof was playing as part of the Stockton International Riverside Festival, and afterwards I hung around on the streets, watching performances, but also watching the audience. There were kids with their parents, clumps of teens, older people using walking aids, and everyone in between. One of the works involved peering through a shop window, below gigantic sculpted flowers that jutted from the upper storey; another, (i)land, featured an airy sprite and two men who looked like soldiers, one of whom was disabled and created a makeshift wheelchair as part of the show. When people got bored, they simply walked away: not – as the infuriating cliche suggests, never to bother with theatre again, but to find something else to watch. Despite an age recommendation of 12+ for The Roof, lots of people took their children to see it, and watching it in their company was delightful: they giggled at the monsters, marvelled at the weird rabbit heads, danced along to the music, and instantly identified the hero as someone they might encounter on their computer screens, brought to life. I love the idea of those kids talking about the show among their friends, remembering it as they get older as that weird thing they saw in their home town one summer. This is why theatre is important: it allows people to see something other than the every day. Slapping rules on how people watch and respond belies that basic value.

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