In the grand scheme of humanity’s time on earth, theatre has been around for a very long time. Spanning from the masked tragic theatre of the Greeks, through Medieval morality plays, past the soaring eloquence of Renaissance drama and up to the contemporary, naturalistic theatre that we expect today, theatre has been around for quite a while. The art form has evolved and developed extensively across the ages, adapting all the while to keep up with the interests and expectations of new audiences. As a form of entertainment, it is one of the most enduring and traditional art forms of our time. And it seems that this has become something of a problem.
Has theatre already reached its peak? Is it past it’s zenith? Certainly, since the invention of film and eventually television in 1925, audience numbers have dropped considerably. Theatre is no longer the most innovative and exciting form of entertainment for audiences. Even today, publications such as The Stage and The Guardian closely monitor audience numbers in British theatre and report them like the numbers of an almost-extinct species. The term “golden age” is bandied about and words like “innovative” and “experimental” are clung to like the handrails on the rush hour tube. The truth is, that theatre is at risk, and has been for a long time. If you come to Central London, you might find this very hard to believe. A short walk through Theatre Land has you shuffling and sidestepping your way through returns queues and day ticket lines that seem to wrap twice around buildings, housing classics and new writing alike. Lit signs above your head shout about ticket sales and record breaking runs for this new musical or that national favourite. Surrounded by the apparent booming business of the theatrical world, it could be difficult to imagine that the establishments flashing at you are actually struggling to keep their doors open. The truth is, that you can’t measure Disney’s success with their new movie by visiting Disney Land, and the same applies for theatre and the West End. As a tourist attraction, theatre in London is doing a pretty good trade, but in terms of fringe theatre and new, experimental writing, things are tough and have been for a while.
The fact is, that theatre just isn’t sparkly enough anymore. Yeah, sure, there’s more lights pointed at the stage of the Lyceum Theatre than there are jewels on Beyonce’s crotch, but you can’t rewind live theatre, and you can’t screenshot a ‘Chicago’ fosse final pose. You can see David Tennant in your living room, and there are no explosions in ‘Speed the Plough’ (though there is a minor car crash).
Film and television now provide a more instant and arguably spectacular form of entertainment gratification. Why would you put on a dress and go to the theatre in heels when you could wear your superman pyjamas and watch ‘Strictly’ on the toilet? Why would anyone choose to pay £35 for an uncomfortable seat with a drink that has to last you at least forty five minutes rather than just downing three mojitos in one go and scrolling through your Facebook Feed in your Bugs Bunny onesie from Primark?
Well, I can answer that question. In fact, I’ve created this whole blog solely to answer all of the above questions. Theatre is a glorious opportunity to see real people performing live, solely for your entertainment. When the curtain goes up, a hush falls over the crowd that you just don’t get with the rustling of popcorn bags in the cinema. When the actors perform, they’re really there and you could just reach out and touch them if you wanted; the emotion and the story and the drama is lying in front of you like a hot buffet that’s been prepared for weeks on end with every last morsel, every last moment cooked to perfection. There is an inescapable immediacy in the theatre; you can feel it zinging in the air. You know that when the actors brandish swords and attack each other that its not two stunt doubles padded up and parrying their way through three moves at a time before the camera cuts and they move on to the next section. Theatre brings drama to life in a way that TV and film will never be able to, 3D or not.
The problem is getting people to accept this; to try theatre. If you are a person who has 1.) Never been to the theatre or, 2.) Been once and found it unimaginably dull, then I would challenge you to think of it like this. Would you avoid watching ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Downton Abbey’ – without even trying it – because someone told you it was elitist, snobbish and dull? Would you never watch another programme on TV because you watched this one programme once and it was really, like… boring? Your TV itself, along with your satellite subscription and your TV licence, plus all those DVDs and boxsets that you’ve accumulated over the years, have cost a lot more than a £15 day ticket you could get to a performance of ‘Richard III’ with Martin Freeman or ‘Great Britain’ with Billie Piper. Yeah – actually in the same room as Dr. Watson and Rose for fifteen quid.
British Theatre has been trying to find new ways to bring in new audiences for a long time, and audience figures have gone up in the past few years. New initiatives such as National Theatre Live, where live performances are broadcast to cinemas around the world, and discounted tickets for 16-25 year-olds have been implemented to try to encourage younger audiences into theatres. Also, Arts Council subsidised theatres like the Royal Court Theatre are dedicated to encouraging and performing new writing, on new topics for new audiences. ‘Teh [sic] Internet is Serious Business’ for example, is currently showing at the Royal Court and is being billed as part of their “revolution season”. The play is considered a “modern history lesson” with special appearances from Grumpy Cat and Socially Awkward Penguin. If that isn’t an attempt at engaging new and modern audiences I don’t know what is.
So is theatre a relic of a more dusty and traditional age of entertainment, or is it an evolving and engaging art form that has the potential to entertain and the right to question modernity as much as any other medium of expression? As a young actor, I lean towards the latter, however part of me does worry that the theatre is being left behind in favour of more glitzy and less-sociable technologies. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some in-roads together in untangling this complex question, and come to a satisfying and hopeful conclusion through the course of this blog. I hope you’ll make this journey with me and even throw in your own two cents; perhaps even to comment upon the appropriate irony of a blog pitting technology against theatre?