Friday, 5 February 2010

A Break-Through!

Whilst I try my hardest to convince what I call 'non-theatre people' to go to the theatre, I rarely succeed, or when I do, the performance itself undoes all my good work through being an utter disappointment.

But... last night... a break-through!

My partner is one of these 'non-theatre people' and has always been highly critical of theatre. Me being me refuse to accept the fact that he quite simply does not like it, particularly as it is often on my mind and therefore often on the agenda for some aspect of our conversations. So to begin with I shall tell you the story of how it takes one woman a year and a half to convert one man into a theatre goer and why this has led me to blog about it.

I began by taking him to see DV8's To Be Straight With You at The Barbican. Big mistake. This was me taking him by the hand, leading him to the deepest end of the pool, climbing a ladder to the top diving board and telling him to jump. This led to a dry spell of around a year, bar him coming to watch me in performance, or my own theatre creations. So what could I do? He didn't want to come to anything with me and to be honest I didn't really want to torture him. DV8 were far from disappointing, in fact, the production blew me away, yet somehow left him firmly in the camp of 'non-theatre people'. Actually I think my taking him to this performance made him more stubborn not to be a part of the theatre world.

So back to the break-through...

Firstly, there was the pantomime to which he went with his little brother and sister. That went smoothly enough. Next, there was Oliver! A step up from pantomime, more talent involved and at least a good strong Dickensian storyline to follow. And now... Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he tells me on the phone last night! Now I do not pretend that he is anywhere near the stage where I would say he loves theatre. The reason he wants to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is because of his love of Adrian Lester, and not because of his performance in Peter Brook's Hamlet, or indeed anything to do with his theatre career, but because he plays Mickey Stone in the BBC's Hustle. So I have some work to do. But oh, how relieved I am that he is finally taking some sort of interest!

What this has got me thinking is, why didn't To Be Straight With You communicate? Is it true that you need some knowledge or at least appreciation of contemporary theatre to understand the forms of what is on stage? Indeed, my parents did not fully understand the modes of performance used for a production of Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp I was part of last May. Is this because they haven't studied for a theatre degree? This led me to re-read a feature I wrote in January last year about the McMaster's Report and how it aims to get new bums on theatre seats. I have copied and pasted the article below for your contemplation. I personally think that many of the points I raise are still relevant and have still not been adequately addressed. How can we get people interested in theatre and performance?

Where have our young audience gone?

And what has the McMaster’s report achieved in the last year to bring them back?

Over one year on since Sir Brian McMaster’s report on arts funding was ‘widely welcomed’ into the arts world and it seems his propositions are still waiting to be fully realised. Hailed as ‘one of the most important cultural policy documents to emerge in Britain for years’, one has to wonder how serious arts representatives are in tackling the problems of the art world, in particular that of attracting the ‘it’s not for me’ audience;

“One of the biggest barriers to audience engagement is the notion held by many that the arts are simply not for them. The ‘it’s not for me’ syndrome is endemic and conspires to exclude people from experiences that could transform their lives” (McMaster Report)

Of all the issues raised by McMaster in his report, it is upsetting to discover that few have jumped on the bandwagon of drawing in larger audiences; a problem which I believe to be the most crucial in determining the future of theatre as a continuing important element of British culture.

“I think the stereotypical British culture... yeah, theatre is probably a part of it, but the stereotypical British culture is really not relevant to people living in Britain today”

Theatre goers are a dying breed; theatre itself is losing its cultural and certainly political meaning to many, and has been lost entirely to a great deal of the younger generation. Through the advice made by Brian McMaster, the Arts Council need to focus on bringing these young audiences in to the theatre world.

“Because I’m not immersed in the theatre culture, I have no idea when things that I would enjoy are being produced”

There does seem to be one saviour in the midst of Arts Council bureaucrats that most in the profession have become accustomed to, in the form of Andy Burnham. The successor of James Purnell (the culture secretary who took the initiative to commission McMaster in the first place), Burnham has proved to bring a broader viewpoint to Brownite reforms, for, as Norman Lebrecht points out, he is the first culture secretary to resist becoming a part of ‘metropolitan cliques’ from within the containment of London. Last month, Burnham’s £2.5 million scheme, first unveiled in December came into play. The plan was to make available 618,000 seats for 18 - 26 year olds free of charge for two years across the UK in a total of 99 theatres, building on other cheap ticket schemes by the RSC and The National. This follows on from McMaster’s proposal to make theatre free for one week of the year, and if all goes to plan, the scheme will continue until 2011. But whilst free tickets are all well and good for Drama students in their masses, what about those who do not factor theatre trips into their lifestyle, it is doubtful that they will make use of the tickets, no matter if they are free, despite Burnham commenting that “It’s about young people broadening their horizons and opening up to new experiences”. At least this is what one initially assumes, but let us never forget, to assume is to make an ass out of you and me. I conducted some research into the matter, consulting a number of British students of whom I considered to be part of the ‘it’s not for me’ audience, wishing to know where they stood. Is it all downhill from here, or do they want to be recruited back into the new and enticing land of theatre McMaster has dreamt up in his report, which claims to be no longer associated with the pretentious old-hat British culture that some interviewees admitted to ‘heartily sneering at’? Yes they do, it seems, but the issue is that most don’t understand theatre, so they ignore it. Good education is vital in reviving enthusiasm amongst young people for the theatre, as Ed Balls acknowledges with his statement that “participating in cultural activities can have a huge impact on a child’s development”. Nicholas Hytner has recognised in his running of The National, a growing and ‘powerful hunger’, which has developed amongst those adults who did not receive a great amount of cultural education, for a ‘deeper and wider experience’.

“If theatre was more heavily marketed and they maybe put on shows that were unique and individual, and pressed that point, then maybe that would draw in bigger audiences. Maybe I might even show up”

McMaster argues that art does not need to dumb down, rather raise its level of excellence to draw in the crowds, but in order for this to happen surely the audience will need some level of theatrical awareness? As McMaster states, “It is vital that young people are given the chance to experience culture within and outside school” and this is where the Shakespeare School Festivals and The National Youth Theatre can be commended for their work with children outside school from all walks of life. Whilst in school, Burnham has again stepped in to try and make improvements in British schools with regards to Arts and Culture. However, Arts-in-schools ideas and apprenticeship schemes have tended to fail with their dependence on a thriving economy, an obstacle of money that the arts world has become used to facing. Despite these trying times however, in the last year Mr Brown has prioritised the arts more than his predecessors, perhaps because according to official statistics, in the last ten years, the 7.3 per cent of UK GDP that is representative of creative industries has grown twice as fast as the rest of the economy. It is a shame that the same cannot happen as it did in 2002, when £25 million was handed out by the government to try and revive regional theatres. As Magnus Linklater points out, the handout produced bigger audiences that arrived at more ambitious productions which had the freedom to experiment with new work. It seems the answer is, as always, money. One area that McMaster picks up on and thoroughly intrigues me is the lack of advertisement, particularly through broadcasting. Almost all of my interviewees stated that they didn’t go to the theatre simply because they didn’t know what was on, where and when. They look to the West-End musicals when they think of theatre, which is seen as expensive and often lacking in the sort of depth they would hope for in a theatre experience. As Mark Ravenhill argues, we live in a culture, particularly at this time of economic crisis, when people would rather make use of their TV licence than go out to the theatre. Ravenhill goes on to argue that “Good arts programming in the media is crucial in cultivating discriminating and demanding audiences”. It would make the theatre much more accessible to those who want to experience it but don’t want to have to go looking for it. Unless you are a part of the theatre world, it seems to be hard work to find out where to go, what show is good at the moment and what it is about. Even after all this, if their first experience is not a good one, who is to say they will ever brave it again?

McMaster claims that “The best person to communicate with audiences is the artist”, indicating an end to the traditional hands-off approach to arts funding. Peer review would encourage excellence in the arts, allowing a broader range of judgement and diminishing personal grudges against an artist’s work. This new level of excellence would aim to bring in new and bigger audiences and would ensure that the funding is going towards what the audience wants rather than the artist’s ego or established name. One would not gamble money on the mediocre, so why should the Arts council?

So what do the younger generation want from theatre? From the evidence I have gathered, one can feel assured that McMaster’s theories of what the audience want are right, as supported by the Arts Council’s inquiry into public value and the arts in England, which proved a desire for a “focus on the quality of artistic experience”. The younger generation want a theatre that appeals to them, something relevant, diverse and educating. In short, it has to mean something to them. There is plenty of theatre out there that would appeal (had they known about it), with new and innovative ideas coming through from DV8, Complicite and Katie Mitchell, with their use of multi-media theatre. As Hytner argues, the use of technology broadens means of communication about complex ideas tremendously and gives the opportunity ‘to build bridges between artist and audience’. Not only this, but it reflects the technological world that the younger generation now live in, it is what they understand and can relate to. In any case, theatre has always been on some level a reflection of the world within which it exists. Therefore, the content material should be topical and relevant.

Interactive theatre with audience participation is another creative path to making theatre accessible. One young lady, who has asked not to be named, suggested that more theatre should be brought out on the streets, if not on television, as a taster for the show, where it is able to intrigue and capture its audience. An advertising deal met with a food company executive of a local town would not only boost takings for the theatre, but help out a fellow business in this time of recession, harking back to a sense of community once warmly felt in this country. Obviously this is concerned with regional theatre, that suffers more with audience numbers than the West End, however if these regional theatre’s could find more creative ways to advertise what they are doing then it would help diminish a need for government subsidy and allow any money that is received to continue in good advertising.

The McMaster Report favours innovation, risk-taking, diversity, relevance, excellence and controversial material over that which merely ticks boxes and lies within the constraints of political correctness. It argues, and rightly so, that “culture is for everyone; that it has the power to change people’s lives, regardless of class, education or ethnicity” and so last year was celebrated as a catalyst for British theatre being “on the brink of a ‘new Renaissance’”. Yet still the Arts Council seems to be up to its old “book keeping tricks”. This failure to comply with the report, teamed with the exam-driven state school system and a huge lack of advertising is steering possible audience candidates away from the theatre. I do not propose that every member of the ‘It’s not for me’ younger generation will, upon witnessing what McMaster describes as excellent theatre , instantly fall in love with what they see.

Of course many people prefer the cinema or television. Rather, I hope that with the right education and background knowledge, most young people will at least be given the opportunity to experience what is (or should be) considered to be a significant constituent of not just traditional, but modern British culture and be able to make that decision for themselves.

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