By Marc Graham, pictured above.
96% of theatre is shit.
Let me define shit.
I didn't grow up with theatre; I found it at school at 15 accidentally. I switched from IT to drama because my mates said that they wrestle in the drama room before Mr. Evans turns up. I grew up with professional wrestling - arguably the most popular form of theatre in the world, not my point here, though - along with skateboarding, pop-punk, football, basketball, golf, Power Rangers, Oasis, hip-hop, indie (circa 2004), curly hair, Beavers/Cubs/Scouts, guitar, Birmingham and Gloucester. I’m also solidly lower middle-class (we’re a nation obsessed with class, and rightly so) a liberal leftie and terrorist sympathiser. I've lived in London and now I live in Hull.
The first piece of theatre I saw was at school and I don't remember what it was. The first professional thing I saw was Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, in which a family breaks down as it is revealed the dad has been having an affair with a goat. I loved it, I’d never seen anything like it and I thought: “Fuck me, this is what theatre can be.” Fuck Me Theatre, similar to Electric Theatre, as Middle Child defines it.
The power of theatre, there. I left buzzing, heart pumping, adrenaline racing, wanting to talk but not knowing how to describe what I’d just seen. All that shit. I then saw Woman In Black - sneer if you want - and felt it again.
Jump forward a decade and I've not had that feeling often enough. I see a lot of theatre and that makes me genuinely sad. Iphigenia In Splott, Violence and Son, Teh Internet Is Serious Business, Wasted, Bottleneck, The Nether, The Kitchen Sink, and A View From The Bridge are some more recent examples of Fuck Me Theatre (about 4%) I've had since school. I do say this honestly as a fan of theatre and a maker of theatre. Every time I see a piece of shit theatre (96%) I mourn the loss of what could have been.
Every show has the potential for Fuck Me Theatre. And what pisses me off about it is that not every show tries to do it. Because they should. Theatre that doesn't push for this is what I term “Shit Theatre”. I'd rather theatres, directors and companies push for this and fail than not bother trying. Reasons for this are plentiful: financial risk, bums on seats targets, boards of directors, fear of the critics and the chasing of stars like a primary school points board are just some.
Here's the main crux of what I'm saying. In our theatres there seems to be a requirement for a certain set level of performance, production values, atmosphere (Telegraph's term 'Culture Of Fear' is there, especially for people who don't go to theatre) and expectation: for the sake of this blog, let’s call this “Modern British Naturalism”. One that seems to be universally accepted and one that is dull, often boring, predictable, declamatory and lacking risk and innovation. David Hare said the same recently. Aside: in our last show we were heckled by someone in the audience because they hated that we had no fourth wall.
Take a risk.
Young people/companies are a risk. One that most theatres don't want to make. As a member of a young(ish) company I often feel we are having to “earn our place” and by that I mean two things: 1) we need to grow older, and; 2) we need to conform to this theatrical norm.
There's a lack of faith in the youth and their ideas. Young companies shouldn't conform: the majority of work produced is not for them anyway so why try and emulate it? Middle Child started that way and it was shit, not our work (it may have been, actually) the feeling of doing it. So we changed tact.
Here are some other ways that theatres can take a risk/evolve.
Bring the fucking prices down
The National is the biggest subsidised theatre in Britain so make the tickets affordable, or free. Make them free. I tried to see another show elsewhere recently but was put off by the £26.50 price tag. I went to see Hull vs Arsenal the other week for £26, and people moan at football prices but at least I might see myself on the telly. No wonder young people don't go: they’re priced out
Take theatrical risks
In A View From The Bridge, [spoilers] Ivo Van Hove's direction had Marco lift the chair in a completely symbolic and non-naturalistic way that didn't make the play shit or explode. Then there was a blood bath to finish: more of that. Let’s evolve from Modern British Naturalism.
Stop relying on old texts
Can you imagine 400 year old music being played in nightclubs up and down the country? No, because it has no right to. I equate many versions of old texts to a “director's wank" (term stolen from Tim Stark). “Let's set Merchant of Venice in Syria to make it relevant to a modern audience.” No, let’s not. Let's commission some new work to do the same thing, but better. Let the Bard rest, for fuck’s sake.
Take inspiration from other things
Live music, street art, drinking and dancing, social media, selfies, cats in bread, Vines... anything that is popular, theatre has to use. Let's not get caught in the tired and erroneous notion that theatre is high art and can't learn from things that aren't connected to theatre. Let's play with form, put on theatre as a gig, tell a story through selfies on Instagram and find ways to engage with new audiences. It's not enough to say “it's good, audiences should come”, it's also probably shit. (96% remember)
Make theatre part of the audience’s night, not the only thing
This is something Middle Child are trying to do, in giving people a reason to come early and stay late, so we'll keep you posted. Ideas welcome.
Hold up a mirror
I feel there's a danger that theatre presents a sterilised version of the world to its audiences. Theatre has a responsibility to inform and educate but also represent the world realistically, to be a mirror, if you will. Theatre can be anti-intellectual and un-PC; that's okay, the world is like that.
Stop saying people don't exist
Often working class characters, characters struggling to make ends meet, characters “living for the weekend”, characters who enjoy themselves in Spoons, dancing and eating kebabs, are said to not exist in the real world. I've heard people say this after a show - I’ve heard you! They do exist; put the Daily Mail down.
Commission more female playwrights, have a woman run The National. A play with a female lead or that has two women talking about something other than a man isn't feminist theatre, it's theatre.
Stop the pigeon holing
Stop calling cheap-laugh comedies set in the North 'Northern Comedies’. Tom Wells and Richard Bean (both Hull, incidentally) have produced the funniest comedies I've ever seen, but they aren't given this tag.
Have some conviction
Don't wait for someone else to put faith in something or say it's good before you recognise it as such. I've witnessed this multiple times: stop it.
* * *
I guess this is a call to arms for theatre makers and non-theatre makers to make a bold change out of love.
When we started Middle Child we took this from Mike Bradwell figuratively: “I would still like to think that, lurking in a dark alleyway round the back of every new £15m glass and steel culturally non-elitist Shopping Mall Playhouse and Corporate Entertainment Facility is a gobby and pretentious 20-year-old with a passion for real theatre, a can of petrol and a match.”
We should have taken it literally. There's still time and petrol's relatively cheap at the moment.