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Jo Caird: Are Theatres Bad at Telling Us Why Theatre Matters?

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I recently attended a fascinating and lively debate hosted by Intelligence Squared, an international forum for live debate. The motion being debated was ‘Museums are bad at telling us why art matters’ and the speakers were art critics and curators from a range of respected publications and institutions. Some of the arguments posed were specific to the world of visual art, but some struck me as pertinent to theatre too, in terms of the relationship between the art form and the buildings that serve it.

The present moment feels like a particularly interesting one in which to address this question, given not just the rise and rise of building-free companies such as the National Theatre of Scotland and National Theatre Wales, but also the devastating cuts to arts funding that mean that buildings across the country are facing some really tough choices if they are to remain open at all.

In the absence of an actual live debate on such a topic (if someone would like to host one, then please invite me along, I’d love to hear the great and the good of British theatre having a proper argument: I was thinking that Andy Field and Cameron Mackintosh could start us off perhaps…), here are just a couple of thoughts, inspired by the museums debate.

Alain de Botton commented that the dominant feeling engendered in members of the public during visits to museums is “puzzlement”: we don't understand what we’re looking at but are embarrassed to admit it and leave feeling unfulfilled by the experience.

Now, clearly not everyone who goes to the theatre (by which I mean, a show in a traditional theatre space), is puzzled by what they see there, just as not everyone who visits museums is puzzled by what they see there, but it is important to acknowledge I think that theatres are still regarded as intimidating, elitist institutions by a not inconsiderable proportion of the population. That’s not to say that they are elitist, just that that’s the impression they can give.

Attracting broader audiences, including making theatres more welcoming to those with little previous experience of the art form, is something that our building-based companies have been seeking to address for a long time. Programmes such as the National Theatre’s Watch this Space Festival (now in its 13th year), for example, which sees the space in front of the building transformed into a stage for free outdoor entertainment, should be applauded for opening up the theatre beyond its traditional spaces in informal and imaginative ways. A circus performance on the Southbank may not in itself be useful in telling us why theatre matters (although it could do, I make no judgements), but if it can be used as a lure to get previously unwilling participants into the building to see the sort of work that they might have been nervous of in the past, then it’s all to the good (why theatre matters, in what way and to whom are questions for another time; in this piece I seek only to raise the issue of how far our buildings succeed in serving the art form).

So for the sake of argument, let’s agree that theatres are bad at telling us why theatre matters (even if they are trying their best). What, beyond the kinds of initiatives mentioned above, is the alternative? Youth theatre, community theatre projects, site-specific shows and street theatre are all examples of work that takes theatre to the people rather than expecting people to come to the theatre. In March this year, when people all over the UK came together at a protests, debates and demonstrations to protest the government’s devastating cuts to public spending, a group called Theatre Uncut organised a series of nationwide theatre events as a response. Hundreds of people, both amateurs and professional theatre-makers, took part, staging plays specially commissioned to address the topic of the cuts and galvanise audiences. At the flagship event at the Southwark Playhouse, in addition to the performances, there were speeches and conversations over the Internet with other groups performing the work elsewhere in the UK – people were angry and inspired in a way that you rarely see at the theatre.

There are, of course, plenty of good points to be made on the other side. Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern, argued that museums fulfill an important role as “structures of mediation” and I think this holds for theatres too. By presenting a piece of work in its historical, geographical and academic contexts, with the help of programme notes, post-show Q&A sessions, and alongside other productions in a season, theatres encourage the sort of debate that (hopefully) leads to further innovation and the ongoing development of the art form. I wouldn’t be without theatres, even if they are sometimes exclusive, overly cosy establishments.

At the end of the museums debate the other week, the motion was defeated. The audience decided – by a whisper – that it is not the case that museums are bad at telling us why art matters. I suspect that a debate on theatres would yield a similar result. How would you vote?


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