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Chris Grady: Musical theatre feels like the artform that dare not speak its name

In his latest blog, Chris Grady argues that fans of musical theatre should no longer hide in the shadows of cultural shame

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Last week I spent a day with emerging and established musical theatre producers, directors and writers exploring the big issues that need to be tackled.

This was a joint venture between Mercury Musical Development (the UK writers network) and Musical Theatre Network (the producers, theatres and creative personnel network), facilitated by Phelim McDermott of Improbable. We enjoyed the beautiful surroundings of the town hall come arts centre in Shoreditch - a grand space for big ideas.

The theme that seemed to flow through for me was the continuing need for us to respect the artform. And this comes at the same time as theatres and arts organisations across the land are pondering the prospect of yet another cut to their R&D (research and development) investment, courtesy of the Treasury settlements, and uncertain futures as local authorities are squeezed to within an inch of their lives.

I keep returning to this big question of respect. Why is it that so many audiences are out and proud when it comes to saying they go to the local theatre, or the opera, or the ballet, or explore the fringes of contemporary dance or performance art, BUT ask the same people what they think of the most popular artform in the world and they give the distinct impression that we have dangled a smelly sock in front of their nose?

Why is it that there are many top theatre directors out there who will enjoy the plaudits of directing opera or Shakespeare, but try to avoid discussion on musical theatre as an artform - even if that same artform is making them or their organisations thousands? Why is it cool to go to the cinema and often deemed uncool to follow and believe in the artform of musical theatre?

One champion bemoaned the loss of Jack Tinker - the inimitable former theatre critic of the Daily Mail. He cheered musicals, he knew about musicals, he spotted talent, and yet he wrote equally passionately and knowledgeably about drama. And he occupied a top spot in a mass media paper. We have many fine critics, and some passionate and wise writers about musicals, but Mr Tinker's position allowed musical theatre a respected and even-handed place in the public consciousness which, maybe, arts editors in the major media could help to re-balance. Musical theatre sometimes feels like the artform that dare not speak its name.

So how do those who care about the artform change hearts and minds at the top of the profession? Is it slow evolution (as we have done successfully with the Arts Council over a 30-year conversation) or is there a revolution to be planned? Those gathered in Shoreditch were excited to debate the challenges of writing better work, tackling more powerful subjects, creating new transglobal work, embracing the technology of the world wide web for creativity, and adapting the form to use the contemporary sounds and forms of today to reach young audiences.

They started as a mixed bag of people with personal passions, and by the end of six hours together there was a circle of common purpose - that's the power of Open Space Technology.

How do we, maybe with our audiences, and most definitely with our peers and our elders, keep the space open and move the discussion about respect forward? MMD and MTN will be delighted, I am sure, to get thoughts, feedback and new recruits.


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