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Make theatre a main course to stop dozing off

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Maria Miller, the Minister for Culture and Equality (now there’s a combination that’d have Mussolini reaching for two revolvers) is encouraging arts organisations to be more commercially savvy. As far as theatres go this advice feels a lot like preaching to the choir.

It’s hard to imagine a producer deliberately supporting a project guaranteed to make a loss. Nowadays theatres are anxious to demonstrate their contribution to the wider economy. The success of The Lion King at Manchester’s Palace Theatre was reported in the media in terms of how it had attracted audiences from outside the northwest and so secured income for hotels and restaurants.
Efforts to have entertainment serve more than one purpose extend beyond the organisations to include also audiences. It is increasingly common for theatregoers to be asked to complete questionnaires to demonstrate that we’ve come from outside the immediate area and booked meals or rooms. While I can understand producers justifying their work by demonstrating it has more than one objective think that this approach can result in the audience becoming greedy and trying to squeeze in so much they lose concentration on the play that is supposed to be the point of their visit in the first place.
The poor souls with the clipboards always look so disappointed on learning I’ve travelled five miles to the venue and brought butties. But this wasn’t always the case. Hard to believe now that Manchester has a decent number of theatres surrounded by a healthy Fringe and a bi-annual Arts Festival but, prior to The Lowry opening, you had to go to other cities to see something other than touring musicals. Which suited me. My friends were drawn from all over the place so meeting up in different towns was fun.
Just like audiences now coming to Manchester we made a day of it and tried to squeeze in as many activities as possible. Stuffed ourselves in Bradford’s Mumtaz curry house before lurching into The Alhambra. Staggered into Liverpool’s Everyman weighted down with American import books from The Bluecoat Chambers. Shopped in the markets in Leeds before going to The West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Wandered around Sheffield’s student quarter on the way to The Crucible. Only Blackpool let us down. Their Opera House has a nice faded grandeur but really the town offers little else to do other than drink bad lager. Recall once seeing both parts of Henry IV on the same day. In the brief period between the plays we dashed into the nearby pizza parlour to find that all the seats were occupied by the cast – it was the only acceptable place to eat.  
Multi tasking might be acceptable in work or at home but for a social activity there is a price to pay. Once you’ve had a heavy meal, a bit to drink and a day’s shopping it becomes increasingly hard to stay awake in the theatre. Well, its warm, the seats are comfy and in most cases we’d seen the play before and felt confident we could catch 40 winks in the dull bits. I’ve dozed through a number of fine plays with excellent casts and had to turn shamefaced to a friend and ask ‘ So, did I enjoy that?’
It was a silly way to behave and hardly respectful to those who put on the show. Besides it was costing a fortune in travel and restaurant bills. Once The Lowry began to attract the type of shows I’d been travelling to see it was something of a relief to be able to watch plays while sober and fresh enough to concentrate. That’s what bothers me about putting theatre in a wider economic context – it’s inevitable that audiences are going to be distracted from the performance by their other interests. People who perceive the play as only part of their day out do not give it the attention it deserves. Recently saw someone at the Lowry surrounded by shopping bags from the nearby Outlet Centre eating a pre-packed salad while the play was actually underway.
Having tried to have it both ways can honestly say it’s a mistake to be greedy and treat theatregoing as just one of a number of activities undertaken on the same day. After all you don’t get full value from the play if you doze off part way through.
- Dave Cunningham


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