Matt Trueman: Theatre rarely lets us be fans

Matt Trueman on how festivals like Latitude prove the power of fandom

© Dan Medhurst

Sunday morning in Suffolk: Latitude festival. Heads are heavy with the night before. Eyes are blinking back tiredness. And Jamie Wood is floating round a marquee in a nappy, looking for all the world like Jesus, and dancing with a yellow yoga ball that represents the sun. Channelling John Lennon and Yoko Ono, his show O No is a little bit ironic and a little bit not. Look around the tent: all these faces caught between amusement and bemusement, unsure what to make of this flagrant hippyism – pan pipes and tie dye and love, love, love. Only at a festival, they seem to be thinking. Only at a festival…

Latitude is unlike any other festival. It’s not a weekend of music with a few added extras, but a truly mixed bill: festo misti. Every art-form gets tossed together and treated, as far as possible, just the same. From a punter’s perspective, it’s a one-size-fits-all job. You curate your own programme. You pick your own path. A bit of Christine and the Queens; a dash of Hofesh; some Sara Pascoe; some Forest Fringe. Theatre types head one way, music lovers the other, but they meet in the middle too. There’s this constant, churning cross-over – a kind of cross-pollination. Drawn by one art-form, people stumble into others. Latitude’s driven by discovery.

Latitude is a festival proper: glitter-paint and hangovers

Theatre has its own festivals – more and more each year – but what I love about Latitude is that it’s a festival proper: glitter-paint and hangovers, three days of stodge, and the peculiar horror/fun of braving the portaloos. Most theatre festivals lasso a load of shows together, either curated or compacted, but only Latitude overhauls the way we watch. It changes us as audiences. It turns shows into gigs – whether they contain music or not – and it turns us into fans.

Fandom is a powerful thing. Go see a gig and it’s the fans that make it. It’s the fans that sing along; the fans squished at the front, dancing and whooping. They’re the ones holding their breath, waiting for their favourite song, trying to catch the band’s attention. You can spot them a mile off – and not just by their crusty tour T-shirts. By their attitude, by their expressions, by the glint of hysteria and the flush of adrenaline. This – whatever this is – matters to them. It means more to them and they to it. Fans make a gig’s atmosphere. They change its temperature.

Theatre rarely lets us be fans – at least, not under normal conditions. It’s too – what – polite? Intellectual? Removed? It wants to say something and it asks us not to join in, but to listen. Yes, you get Game of Thrones fans piling into Doctor Faustus, but that’s not the same. Nobody mouths along to Marlowe. No-one screams for their favourite soliloquy.

Fans follow their favourites, whatever they’re up to. It’s a state of devotion, fandom; a part of you. Theatre’s more thrown together than that; temporary companies making singular shows. Audiences mostly go to see shows, before we go to see artists.

It’s very hard to be a fan of a building: a Royal Court devotee or a Young Vic groupie

Not so at Latitude. Look at its line-up: by artist, not title. You turn up for Circa, not Landscape with Weapon; CHRISTEENE, not Trigger. And you drag your mates along too, promising they’ll love these guys as much as you do. In festival conditions, with sound bleed and booze, we watch more for style than for content. You’re putting your faith in artists – choosing to be there, with them, rather than another gig elsewhere on site. Clashes don’t just make you pick – CHVRCHES or Gob Squad, the Lyric or Louis Theroux – they make you commit. Theatre, with its six-week runs, doesn’t often do that. Here, each gig is a one-off: one shot to see it. Be there or miss out.

Me? I had to see Hofesh Schecter, and I had to catch Circa. Christopher Brett Bailey. Jamie Wood. David Rosenberg and Glen Neath. Artists I love, all of them. But above all else: Gob Squad – the one company of whom I’m a fan first, and a critic second. No matter that Super Night Shot wasn’t in its best shape – a piece made for cities, uptight and impersonal, became froth at the festival – but I’d love them regardless. It’s their humour, their gusto, their eye on the world. It’s them, actually: the people in it – Sarah, Sean, Sharon, Simon et al. No coincidence, I think, that they’re more like a band than almost any other theatre company. Maybe Little Bulb. Maybe Forced Entertainment. Maybe Kneehigh of old. All have their fans.

Someone said to me this weekend that their favourite live bands aren’t necessarily the best musicians, nor those whose songs they most love. They’re the bands with genuine personality: great patter between songs, capable of lifting a crowd and giving a great gig in the moment.

It’s the same with theatre, I think, and that’s why fandom fits independent artists more than it does theatres. It’s very hard to be a fan of a building: a Royal Court devotee or a Young Vic groupie. The difference comes down to personality. You can get to know an artist or a company, in a way you can’t a venue. Their personality shines through their shows. Their work reflects them and they embody it onstage. Building’s shift with each show they host. They might have a manifesto, a set of values, maybe even something like personality, but it’s abstract and detached. It’s not tied to individuals.

It can be, on occasion. Old rep companies had that, as did a more recent incarnation: the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre company. We, as audiences, got to know them as actors. We saw them shift with each show. We saw them through their roles. That changes the relationship between audience and performer. It lets us join in. It lets us become fans. Festivals like Latitude prove the power of that.