Mike Pence knew exactly what he was stepping into when he went to see Hamilton last Friday night. When the Vice President Elect, a man who stood as part of a racially divisive presidential ticket, goes and sees a celebration of diverse America a week after his election, it's hard not to raise a sceptical eyebrow.
At the show's curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon stepped forward and, respectfully, addressed the cast's concerns to the incoming VP: "We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us an uphold our inalienable rights." (You can watch the full speech at the top of this article.)
Dixon was right to speak up. Doing so retained the company's control of the show. Rather than allowing Pence to co-opt it by attending – and being seen attending – they framed its message to the media. Pence knew what he was doing. He can't not have done.
Dixon was right to speak up. Doing so retained the company's control of the show.
Everyone who sees Hamilton knows what they're in for – Pence, President Obama, whoever. The show's thrust has been spelled out elsewhere and, since securing a ticket takes so much money/effort/planning/fame, no one sits down to be surprised by its central message – that America belongs to all Americans, whatever their colour or creed; that it has always been a nation of immigrants.
No, Hamilton's audience turn up ready to receive and cheer that message to the rafters. Bigots aren't flocking to Broadway. Neo-nazis aren't renouncing their racism at the Richard Rogers Theatre night after night.
Since the US Election, I've been thinking about bubbles. (Everyone has, it seems to me.) How do we bust through the algorithms that dish each of us up the world we want to see? How do we reach those we disagree with when systems keep us apart? At present, we're spinning ourselves into cyclones of confirmation bias.
Theatre has its own version of this – the problem of preaching to the converted. An art form that rarely gets to choose its audience, it plays to the people that turn up – whosoever pays to do so. Its message only ever reaches those that chose to hear it.
Over the past decade or so, British theatre has been under pressure to get audience figures up. Subsidised spaces used to survive on 50-60 per cent houses. That tends to be much higher now – nearer 90 per cent in London. As subsidy has shrunk, theatres rely on box office in a way they never used to. They can't survive without selling well.
Theatre plays to the people that turn up. Its message only ever reaches those that chose to hear it.
What they can't afford to do, therefore, is alienate their audiences. Is it any wonder, then, that they tend to affirm those audience's politics? Only a fortnight ago, the former Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey warned about "groupthink" in the arts. Isn't that a product of having to attract a sizeable audience? Subject to the market place, of course theatre tends to consensus thinking.
How, then, does it have a meaningful political impact? Isn't it every bit as much an echo chamber as our Facebook feeds? How do artists begin to disrupt that?
The answer is they have to consider the frame. They have to consider the way their work is being presented and work with or against it. Coney's Tassos Stevens says that a piece of theatre starts the moment you first hear about it. Artists have to remember that – and use it to their advantage.
It is possible. Under Rupert Goold, Headlong would dangle a big name title, then dish up something expected – a Doctor Faustus cut with a story about the Chapman Brothers or a King Lear ripped out of any historical setting. They coaxed audiences in, then defied their expectations. Doing so changed theatre. What was once radical has become the accepted norm. Audiences got used to such approaches.
DV8 did the same thing with content. JOHN was marketed as a verbatim piece about an individual, a homeless drug-user. It followed him from an abusive childhood through heroin addiction and homelessness. Halfway through, it changed tack. A study of a man became a study of a place – the saunas where gay men meet for sex.
Had the show been advertised as such, it would have attracted a very different audience. Instead, a typical National Theatre audience was confronted with a side of life they rarely, if ever, consider. DV8 smuggled the subject it – fittingly for a subject that's hidden in plain sight. (Even the title is a double entendre.)
Theatremakers around the world have to keep on surprising.
In each case the show's frame is part of the art – the way a performance is presented is as the performance itself. Bryony Kimmings' Pacificist's Guide to the War on Cancer tees itself up as a musical – a populist genre and an intriguing prospect – then becomes something else entirely. Scottee's keeping quiet about the subject of his new show, Putting Words in Your Mouth, the better to surprise an unsuspecting audience and challenge their existing opinions.
Back to Hamilton and Pence: Dixon's speech was a similar disruption. It had to be. Hamilton's message has been commodified by its Broadway setting. His curtain call speech cut through that. It reasserted the show's ability to really reach its audience; to really connect and communicate. It took its audience by surprise.
As the world retreats to its corners, sticks its fingers in its ears and refuses to listen, theatremakers around the world have to keep on surprising. It is not enough to serve up a message onstage. One has to think about how, where and to whom you perform. It's simple. Either you disrupt the echo chamber or you disappear into it.
- Rupert Goold
- King Lear
- Bryony Kimmings
- Doctor Faustus
- Brandon Victor Dixon
- Removal Men
- Mike Pence
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