Catherine Love: Time up for show times?

Instead of just the standard evening time slot, could theatres start getting more inventive with when they programme performances?

Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
Tomorrow, instead of taking a lunch break (or, as more often happens, eating a sandwich at my desk), I’m heading over to the Albany in Deptford to catch a 1pm showing of Home Sweet Home. It makes a welcome change to my theatregoing schedule, taking time out in the middle of the day to see a show rather than heading out in the evening. And it got me thinking about our theatregoing habits as a society. Why are we so wedded to the 7.30pm showing?

There are no doubt many practical reasons for consistently putting theatre on in the evenings, with the odd matinee thrown in for good measure. But for many people, these conventional timings no longer fit in with the demands of life. Working hours are changing, as are people’s lifestyles. If arts policy makers are serious when they talk about making theatre part of the everyday existence of a wider spectrum of the public, then perhaps they need to be thinking more carefully about how it can really slot into those many different lives.

This is beginning to happen in some corners. I was interested to see, for example, that the Royal Court is running a series of lunchtime play readings in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs over September and October, perhaps following the example of the St James Theatre’s lunch break shorts. Lunchtime theatre is nothing new, but it seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years. It’s striking, therefore, to see high profile theatres attempting to breathe new life into it.

"There are lots of barriers to engagement, but timing is not one that often gets discussed"

But one new time slot is just the beginning of the story. Theatres should be looking carefully at their programming and how they might be more flexible with their performance times. When I was following the first six months of theatre producer Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood initiative last year, one of the things we kept hearing from people was a desire for shows on at different times of day that would allow them to attend. There are lots of barriers to engagement, but timing is not one that often gets discussed.

And that’s not to mention the possibilities for greater imagination and invention. Often, theatres have space that simply lies empty during the day. What might it look like if artists were allowed to get creative with that space as a way of inviting people in at different times?

To take one example, I’ve rarely seen the Royal Court as animated and welcoming as it was during Open Court last summer, when there always seemed to be something on. Theatregoers could enjoy an intimate morning play reading or take an audio tour around the building at any time. Just looking at the many different events taking place at a couple of my local Fun Palaces on 4 and 5 October, meanwhile, gives a flavour of what can be done in arts spaces throughout the day – as well as proving just how much can be achieved on a small budget. So why not open the doors and open up the schedule?