I’m writing this is in part a response to Matt Trueman’s recent post on Bad Theatre, although his article has really just catalysed this post about a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about for a while.
An argument against Bad Theatre appears to be the terrible things it does to its audiences, both in potentia and in the auditorium. Things that will put them off of theatre for life. Although, this feels like a kind of curious catch 22, as I suspect few aim to make something truly awful. In the vicious caldron of making there are and will always be many hoops and hurdles, infighting and misunderstanding, collisions of vision and form. Not to mention a financial landscape that almost guarantees a short rehearsal schedule, shortcuts in design, equipment and crew. Some may elect not to show something at all if it falls short of their own quality control, but the majority of theatre that comes under the Bad banner is likely to be viewed as good by at least one person producing it.
Of course, audiences are hardly a homogenous bunch: one audience members meat is likely another’s veganism, and I know decades of watching live performance have spoiled me rotten. When I don’t like a show, I might roll my eyes, sneakily tweet something bitter or even walk out – but I’d like to hope I wouldn’t question whether it should have been made. On reflection, and after a pint, I’d rather things were experimented: and if some strange charms crystallised on stage and made someones night (even whilst they smeared shit over mine) then that’s still to be applauded. No one is born theatre, without some Bad under your belt, you might never get to great.
“If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.” – Adriano Shaplin, The Riot Group
It’s also true the competitors for a live theatrical performance are manyfold: an evening in with Netflix, a night out at the pub, some kind of sporting event (oh those sporting events, why aren’t our theatre fans like the fans of those sporting events), dinner and a movie (or a popcorn fuelled livestream), walking the dog, curling up with a book, a nook or a comic, some Call of Duty or hanging out in Arkham.
Yet a theatre event can be so many of those things: an adventure in the city, a sound walk finding the unknown in well trodden paths, screaming for the home team in Hoke’s Bluff, quietly reading in a library and finding a perfect echo. From Punchdrunk’s amusement parks to the lightweight fortune teller of an intimate one-on-one, there isn’t one theatre, there’s no single thing to dismiss.
Yet even given this crazy variety and diversity, theatre and performance does appear to be frequently dismissed in a heartbeat: it is too often thought of as “posh people in pretty clothes speaking poetry”. In part I think that’s down to its marketing: so many shows are promoted with a picture and some theatrical language on a website, a tweet or two, some A5 flyers and a poster. Holding up perceived wisdom in an echo chamber. No wonder people bunch it all into one imagined category.
What’s the most cray cray, though, is this idea that to see one bad show is to screw it up for life.
I’m wary of a sporting metaphor, but who goes to a football match, watches a shit game then vows never to go again (or at least sobers up the next day still feeling that)? When you see an awful movie, would you shake your head and think ‘that form of entertainment is simply not for me’? Same goes for a music gig, or a comic book or a AAA video game. Did a bad school trip put you off travel for life?
I recently suggested a good friend of mine should come see Chris Brett Bailey’s This is how we die. Rather than using the dreaded ‘spoken word’ phrase, I pitched it as a dark stand-up spoken by someone who spends most of the time sitting down. Interest piqued, she came and brought a friend. They both loved every minute. I’m minded to stop asking, cajoling and instructing folks they should come to the theatre: instead I’ll take a leaf out of Lyn’s book and buy them a ticket, or bring them to something open and inviting, something that’ll change their idea of what theatre can be (probably without even mentioning the word).
I don’t think it’s Bad Theatre that stops audiences coming, its more that theatre is always changing and evolving but we don’t necessarily change the way we ask people in. It’s difficult to think of another industry where the public perception of what it is and what it actually is differs so wildly.
It’s a perception problem: right now a risk averse, tight belted population doesn’t want to take a punt on something that they may not like, or that they don’t think is for them. So drag them along, pay for their ticket and look out for venues that’ll help you with that.
The Albany sell £1 tickets at the local market, over at the HUB everything is Pay What You Think and at the Yard they’ve just announced a discount card for locals. I love these kinds of schemes, especially when a venue realises that they’re in control of who gets what concession, and that the concession rate can be something realistic – a £1 discount on a twenty quid ticket isn’t going to have the unemployed, the over 60s or students breaking down the barricades – but a £5 ticket scheme or a BOGOF just might.
Hopefully that way, next time your buddies see some Bad Theatre it won’t scar them for life – although it’ll might just lighten your wallet.