Theatre Matters

This blog is pretty much heresy for someone like me. After all I was the teenager who used to draft imaginary ‘rep’ seasons in the back of my history exercise books and who flunked my A Levels by spending every non-school hour lurking around the beguiling corners of West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Grand Theatre or Harrogate Theatre.

But I just can’t stop feeling a little uncomfortable about the current ‘My Theatre Matters’ campaign.

Man to Man, currently running at Colchester Mercury Studio. Photo Mike Kwasniak

Man to Man, currently running at Colchester Mercury Studio. Photo Mike Kwasniak

It’s not that I disagree with the premise behind it. Far from it. I know that my own life would be immeasurably worse off were it not for my regular visits to the likes of Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, Ipswich’s New Wolsey, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, the National Theatre and the Almeida. And it’s great to see the sector co-ordinating a well organised, well thought through campaign with audiences at its heart. Hats off to the TMA for leading on it.

But my discomfort is that by focusing on only buildings, and more specifically theatre buildings, the campaign is only telling half the story.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
Peter Brook The Empty Space

Eastern Angles own production of Dark Earth

Eastern Angles own production of Dark Earth

Four out of five of my theatrical highlights so far this year have been works performed outside of traditional theatre spaces. Aldeburgh Festival’s Grimes on the Beach, National Theatre Wales’, The Radicalisation of Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Eastern Angles’ own Dark Earth all happened in locations which had direct relevance to the unfolding narrative, as Clare Brennan of the Observer puts it `providing a profoundly affecting dimension’. MIF13 and Brannagh`s Macbeth relocated the action to an deconsecrated church and delivered many a spine tingling moment. For me this year only the Almeida`s Chimerica (and maybe the Young Vic’s A Season in the Congo) has delivered that same sense of breath-taking, awe-inspiring theatre. Yes, my theatre matters, but much of the theatre that has really affected me this year, hasn’t taken place in a theatre building.

And on a professional level, it feels a little alienating, if not awkward, that My Theatre Matters is a campaign that it’s not easy for Eastern Angles to feel part of. Not because EA think that theatre doesn’t matter (far from it), but precisely because as a company we spend most of our time getting out and away from our building base, and often into non-traditional spaces. And we’re just one of many companies whose work is either nomadic or for whom traditional venues are unappealing or unsuitable.

La Merce Giants, earlier this month. Barcelona

La Merce Giants, earlier this month. Barcelona

Theatre buildings – the bricks, mortar and design – are not themselves ‘theatre’. Years ago it was common place for us to talk amongst ourselves about the ‘fear of the threshold’, and it’s this in part which has fuelled the development of theatre happening in non-traditional spaces. Audiences who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in their local theatre happily immerse themselves in La Merce Giants (Spain), Lantern Parades and festival openings, the monumental works of Royal de Luxe (Sea Odyssey, the Sultans Elephant) or the Passion of Port Talbot. It seems fair to say that much of the most exciting work in theatre today is currently happening outside of traditional spaces, and as Lyn Gardner argued, theatres need to get out more.

I do of course understand the pragmatism behind My Theatre Matters; it’s a campaign designed to keep theatre buildings at the front of local authorities’ minds as decisions about what to fund and what to be cut are made and existing cuts continue to bite.

So I have, of course signed up to the campaign, and urge you to do the same. Nevertheless I remain uncomfortable with its focus on buildings.

Theatre does matter….regardless of whether it’s happening in a purpose-built regional theatre, an arts-centre, on a beach, in a town square, a school or simply an empty space.

It’s about the performances themselves and the connection and impact they have on us as human beings.

It is the theatre itself that matters.

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