Theatre Needs To Reconnect With Its Purpose
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
This pandemic has to force us to make theatre differently and reconnect with its purpose.
We like to argue that theatre is necessary. That it is vital for our mental health. That it brings communities together, sharing stories and experiences. That theatre makes the world a better place to live. It certainly should do.
The reality, however, is that theatre is none of these things. Certainly not in its current guise. Theatre is either an overpriced, commercialised and lifeless piece of light entertainment, or a piece of self-satisfied, self-righteous political commentary for equally self-satisfied and self-righteous audiences.
Theatre has become entirely disconnected from the live, reactive, challenging and entertaining artfrom it is designed to be. It has attempted to compete with TV, film and stand-up comedy and, in doing so, has stripped itself of all that made it a special and unique artform in the first place.
We’ve turned theatre into an exclusive, indulgent and soulless piece of self-congratulatory nonsense. No wonder people don’t think theatre is for them. I’m not sure I think theatre is for me – I certainly can’t afford it anymore. The only work I ever see now is stuff I’ve made myself or shows where I’ve been given a free ticket to press night. I can’t justify the money to see something that will almost certainly be underwhelming anyway.
Theatre was designed to be an immediate and reactionary artform. Plays could be created in relatively short periods of time. The fast turnaround meant that plays were alive, full of the potential to go drastically wrong, and able to pass comment on their immediate circumstances. Theatre could challenge the status-quo.
Now that work is programmed up to two years in advance, it can’t possibly make any kind of real statement about the world around us. At best, it makes a statement about the world two years ago.
We need to cut the time it takes between idea to show dramatically. We need to give shows a 6-month turnaround at the longest. Don’t worry about making the slickest, most perfectly formed piece of ‘art’. Just get the story out there, making it as alive and engaging as possible. And, once it’s had its day in the sun, put it to bed, don’t drag it out for years and years milking as much cash out of it as possible.
Cheap and cheerful is generally used as a criticism but actually that is exactly what theatre is designed to be! We need to embrace that. We also need to break free from the notion that theatre has to exist in a theatre building. Theatre can exist anywhere in which actors and audience are brought together. People aren’t coming to the theatres, so let’s go to them. Make theatre pop up in spaces that people actually relate to. Make it cheap and cheerful. You don’t need fancy lights, sound systems and projectors. You just need actors, an audience and a good story.
This way we can reconnect with audiences and make work that people actually relate to and enjoy. Popular work. Not in a ‘we’ve-sold-out’ commercial sense. Popular in a ‘people-actually-like-it’ sense!
Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson didn’t need elaborate sets and lighting effects. They didn’t really need costumes either. They just had great stories, performed in a style people could engage with and relate to, in a space that felt accessible and affordable. Currently, theatre is none of these things.
People don’t see the point of theatre because, right now, theatre is pointless. It is either making money for the sake of making money, or it is preaching to the converted.
We need to take this opportunity to shake things up once and for all. We need to make theatre immediate, reactive, accessible, affordable and meaningful again.