Sir John Gielgud used to wear a three-piece suit to rehearsal. When asked he would explain that acting is a serious profession – much like banking, lawyering or civil serving – and that theatre practitioners should dress accordingly. There is, surely, no small irony in the fact that actors are chameleons by nature, and that Sir John might just as readily have found himself in a suit of armour, a toga or a dress by lunchtime, but the underlying point is a serious one. Many emerging companies struggle with presentation. We’re supposed at once to tick the ‘young creatives’ box (how many actors own multiple suits and ties?) and the ‘young professionals’ box (for which at least one suit is needed), and our daily routine can vary from scripting new material in our front rooms to being handed the keys to a 400-seater playhouse and suddenly lamenting the lack of suitable clothes to paint in.
One of the things that draws me – and, I suspect, many of us – to the theatre is its mercurial quality as a workplace. We seldom know from day to day what the next few hours will hold. This makes long-term planning difficult. Here at Reverend, we’re working on a season of four plays, of which ‘Kingdom,’ ‘Dracula’ and a soon to be announced story about crime and punishment are the first three. I couldn’t have told you when we started what the fourth piece of the puzzle would be – indeed, even now, we’re not entirely sure (although the prospects are exciting!) Each piece of work a company does helps shape the company’s identity as a whole. This is because theatre artists are artisans – we are makers – and whether we’re reinventing the classics or staging something fresh, the emphasis should always be on the novelty – the newness. We used to have a slogan: “Telling old stories in new ways.” We dropped it – partly because it was hammy; partly because we didn’t feel it was the best way articulate what we were doing any more – but the underlying ambition is still something we stick to.
The greatest writers in the theatre have also tended to be poets, and the two crafts go hand in hand (most of the best poetry is, in some sense, dramatic). The word poet, of course, derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘maker’ or ‘crafter’ – and so, indeed, we are all craftsmen (and women). Before training to be an actor I spent some time studying medieval literature, and I still take on occasional students from time to time (some of whom have, over the years, themselves gone into the theatre – and, in the spirit of Gielgud, I make no apology to their parents, who keep asking them when they will be getting a ‘proper job’). Whenever I teach poetry I insist on students articulating a text out loud. When we hear ourselves speak we perceive a new dimension in a text not always accessible to us as silent readers. When we hear others speak, more colours still seem to shine through. This is why the best poetry – the best theatre – never gets tired. I have seen maybe a dozen Hamlets to date, and am still achingly excited to see Maxine Peake’s new take on the role in Manchester next month. I never saw Gielgud’s, but the famous story of him bounding into Olivier’s dressing room after the latter great actor had debuted his interpretation, and accosting him with the words, “congratulations, but it’s still my role” somehow rings true. There is a real technical skill in converting the words on the page into life on the stage, and the longer I practice in this field (a turn of phrase perhaps more commonly used by doctors and lawyers, but no less applicable to the actor for whom practice is all important), the more I am convinced that the profession of actor is as serious, demanding, rewarding and engrossing as the job of cabinet minister.
If this were a campaigning column (and I’m conscious that this blog can sometimes resort to politics, but in this case I’ll refrain) now would be the time to decry the poor state of funding for theatre and the chronic level of unemployment and underpayment experienced by actors. But while I’m all in favour of public subsidy for the arts, I also think it incumbent on us, as theatre-goers and practitioners, to recognise the basic economics of supply and demand. We now see thousands graduate from acting training courses in this country every year, and there are no jobs for them. Ironically, given how this column started, the same imbalance now plagues the legal profession, with too few pupillages for trainee barristers. Susan Elkin articulated this imbalance in ‘grass-roots theatre’ most effectively in a column for The Stage back in June, and Lyn Gardner made a similarly nuanced contribution to the debate on her own blog shortly thereafter. I have much sympathy with both these points of view. It does strike me, however, that Gielgud had a point when he donned his tailored suit in the morning. If we are to address the problems within the theatre sector we must recognise that they are as much commercial as they are creative – indeed, perhaps more so – and that they require us to be business professionals, as well as poets, if we are to solve them. British theatre continues to push boundaries on stage, but behind the scenes the culture is one of ‘safe’ programming; relying on established names; consolidating spending and production in London and leaving the under-funded ‘regions’ to fend for themselves.
Good commerce is a creative art. As Ms Gardner says, actors and producers must acknowledge the ‘business’ end of showbusiness. Reverend now has monthly meetings where we discuss the commercial implications of each new project alongside the creative, as two sides of the same coin. We recognise that the British state isn’t coming to bail us out anytime soon, and that if theatre is to thrive we need to make the case that it is a serious art form, as essential to our civic society as the NHS, Legal Aid and Parliament. That responsibility cannot be shirked, and if it means diversifying our portfolios (and even learning a bit of business jargon) then so be it. Gielgud was a consummate professional who rose to champion his profession. Today’s theatre industry obliges us all to follow his lead.
Last week, Arts Council England announced details of its three year investment plans for its National Portfolio – that is, the group of artists and crafts workers who will continue to receive major public investment in support of their work. The news has been generally well received, with industry paper The Stage referring to the announcement as “brutal but not radical,” and acknowledging the finesse with which ACE, under the chairmanship of Sir Peter Bazalgette, has redistributed the increasingly scarce funding which survived the latest round of austerity cuts. Even non-London based organisations (unceremoniously lumped together in the statistics sheet as belonging to “the regions” – as if that were a mythic, foreign land) have received a proportionately larger piece of pie this time around.
One repeated subject of debate in the press and online has been ACE’s dependence on building-based organisations as the most frequent and best-satisfied recipients of its bounty. Some commentators have suggested – as they do each time a funding round is announced – that the future of theatre should lie elsewhere, beyond the four walls (or five if you count Irving’s famous convention) of the theatre building. Such voices belong to the disciples of ‘site-specific’ theatre; an idea which is not new, but has been gaining ground in recent decades, although funding streams have yet to catch up.
The idea is simple: Theatreland cannot compete with Hollywood, since they offer profoundly different experiences. The attraction of live theatre lies in the simple fact that it is live. Those who witnessed Gielgud give his Hamlet will never witness it again (a bad example, perhaps, since the actor gave the same role many times throughout his dazzling career) – or, at least, will never see it played the same way. The magic lies in having been there, in that moment, on that night; in having experienced the production – not simply watched it. One of the best notes I ever received during training was from Alex Clifton, Artistic Director of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre: “Be prepared, because something will go wrong tonight. It could be large – it could be small – you can’t possibly anticipate it. And whatever it is, it could make the show, if you play it right.” Whoever said that acting was about reacting surely had live theatre in mind.
Rather than play it in the confine of a black box, therefore, why not extract it from that sterile space and put it on in the location where the action is set? For a play set in a forest (Reverend’s In the Kingdom of the Blind makes for a fine example) perform in a forest! If set in a flat (like Dracula) perform in a flat – perhaps one enlarged to hold a thronging crowd. Site-specific performance is certainly an attractive option in many ways. The outrageous overheads which go into powering playhouses – many of them antiquated buildings – are eliminated at a stroke. Companies like Slung Low in Leeds have drunk the kool aid to such an extent that they never now perform in non-site-specific contexts.
This is well and good for plays which take place in a single setting, without the need for special effects such as a well-equipped theatre can produce, and with the consent of audiences who are prepared to make do with such seating or standing conditions as the specific site allows. Site-specific theatre can be wonderful – enhancing the experience of the right play a thousand times over – but it can also be woeful, disenchanting and, for many outdoor plays, cold and wet. Some material resists site-specificity, and should not be forced into this mould. There is also something to be said for preserving the distinction between the real world and the world of the play. In a great article for The Guardian, Tim Crouch argues against “clocks, running water, fire and kisses” since the reality they bring to a moment on stage contrasts awkwardly with the carefully managed narrative ‘reality’ which persists for the rest of the play. Audiences want to be alienated, as Brecht has it, and bringing them to a ‘real’ location may not always satisfy this craving.
The moral, then, as usual, is ‘horses for courses.’ Some plays are designed to be site-specific, and work wonderfully in this context. Many others, however, lose out by moving out of the theatre, and for all that buildings may suck up much of the funding that is out there, they most definitely have their part to play in perpetuating the great theatre of today. As a final thought, I gave a paper this week at the IMC in Leeds in which I argued that acting is often “not a putting on, but rather a setting aside of self.” I’m tempted to make the same argument for the value of theatre which is resolutely not site-specific: the stage is a designedly anonymous space. The invitation is there for each new play staged on it to give it a new face and identity.
There is a creative tension in the fabric of our society between the avant-guard innovators of the 'arts world' and the good old fashioned yarn-spinners who are the blood, sinew and soul of British theatre.
It's an extraordinary thing no doubt, but for the last few decades new dramas have often treated plot as an optional extra. Since 'Look Back in Anger' came carousing onto the stage of the Royal Court in 1956 to challenge a whole host of orthodoxies, form and style have superseded story as the criteria by which a playwright's artistry is judged. Off the bat, there is nothing wicked or seditious about dispensing with plot – indeed, some of the most poignant scenes in theatre and shots in film are characterised as much by inaction as by narrative progression – but the ugly side to this decline has been a thinly-veiled contempt in some circles for 'mere yarns.'
No more. Since subscription TV services like Netflix became dominant in the public consciousness, allowing the proliferation of long-form storytelling which depends for its repeat viewing figures on the artfully deployed cliffhanger or voltface moment, plot is back. Devoted followers of intricate narratives such as those driving 'Breaking Bad' or the American re-make of 'House of Cards' become invested not only in the present but in the past and future of their beloved characters. And this trend is finally being felt on stage – the platform which should have led the way. Robert Wilson-esque interpretative abstract pieces still have their place, but their hierarchical predominance has had its day. The snobbery attending a good tale well told must end, and there are encouraging signs.
This hierarchy is what keeps people out of theatres; the sense that plot should be arcane or irrelevant – if, indeed, distinguishable at all. This is why we still throng to panto and the West End, where we can at least assure ourselves that story is alive, leaving subsidised venues struggling against the current. This is not an indictment of any individual, nor a group, but rather a general trend towards distaste for the 'crass' plot-driven mojo of these increasingly popular TV entertainments when compared to the nominally 'higher art form' that is allegedly deployed on stage. The truth is, there is nothing crass about well-formulated plot mechanics. Driving a plot is as much a skill as polishing your perfect purple prose.
Why don't we do sequels on the stage? Why not episodes and procedurals? Thick and fast the practical dilemmas come: you can't show the same play to the whole audience in one go, so they'll always be out of step. We do do sequences: the RSC's much-esteemed 'Nicholas Nickleby'; Shakespeare's history plays; the recent James Plays by the National Theatre of Scotland. But of long-form storytelling in the theatre we hear little. Yet this was the mainstay of oral culture in this kingdom, stretching back millennia. This was the knack that kept Scheherazade from the scaffold. This is the quality that had us tune in to 'The Sopranos' and 'The West Wing'. Story runs deep in our consciousness – and woe betide the playwright who underestimates its potency.
2013 was an anniversary year for Jane Austen, celebrating 200 years since the publication of 'Pride and Prejudice.' While recently re-visiting 'Northanger Abbey,' her first published work, I came across the much celebrated passage in which Miss Austen reminds us of the values and virtues of her own art by having her heroine, the impressionable but likeable Catherine, take up the pastime of reading novels:
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.
Theatre-makers take note: we do ourselves just such a disservice whenever we show disregard, disrespect or disdain for our own timeless medium. The oft-repeated cant, 'whither theatre in the digital age?' has sounded loud in recent years. Swingeing cuts in public subsidy for the arts have led the great and the good to ponder aloud, “what is the social benefit of what you do?” They might well ask the same of Jane Austen.
Her admirers would be justified in defending Austen from the charge of self-indulgence by pointing to the huge revenue her creations have generated from tourists, from movie adaptations, from well-intentioned imitators (first the lucratively successful 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,' now Joanna Trollope's liberal re-write of 'Sense and Sensibility'). But the real value of her work is surely in its heart, spirit and soul; in the way it speaks to us across the divide which now spans two centuries. Through humour, through heartache, through hope, Austen's novels tell stories which satisfy us on a transcendental level. And that, of course, is the whole point.
I was recently drawn into a conversation by the provocative premise that “it is not enough for theatre merely to entertain.” To which I here posit the rejoinder, “why not?”
That pejorative “merely” aside, the charge sounds paradoxical. As the playwright Aaron Sorkin puts it, our business is “to captivate for as long as we have asked for your attention.” And what better way to captivate than to entertain? Put it another way: what captivates us more, a dull read – however factual; however worthy – or Jane Austen? Why do we keep coming back to watch yet another staging of 'Hedda Gabler'? – precisely because “people don't do such things” as Ibsen shows us, and when they do break the bounds of convention they captivate us: we are entertained.
To entertain is our business; it is our craft; it is our imperative. To do it down – to call it “mere” or term it “insufficient” is to miss the very point. It's not our business to tell people what to think, or how to think; merely to stimulate and engage them. Our business may be laughter; our business may be lamentation, but if it fails to entertain then it has failed in every respect.
Entertainment is not always about provoking humour. It is about appealing to the deepest sensibilities of a reader, audience or interlocutor and challenging the status quo. Let's rally in defence of entertainment – at least once in a while. After all, if the hero or heroine of one theatrical endeavour be not patronised by his or her peers, from whom can we expect protection and regard? I simply cannot approve of it.
Last week, a gentleman named Douglas McPherson wrote a comment piece for the Daily Telegraph. In it, he criticised the culture of public funding for the arts on the basis that, in his experience, publicly funded work serves only a narrow, self-selecting audience, whereas the commercial sector – because of the profit incentive – produces work for the multitudes which is, by his definition inevitably more successful. He writes:
“Not all art can be commercially viable, but the best will be - and the best is all we, the public, need.”
Since his column was published, I've heard it decried in its entirety from noon 'til night by artists – many of them brilliant – and audiences too. For all the backlash, though, and for all that certain remarks (like the one quoted above) strike me as misguided, I'm not quite so convinced as many in our industry that he's altogether wrong.
There is a great and growing divide between the subsidised and the commercial sectors in the UK. True, in London especially, some enterprising producers o'erleap it, with productions by the National Theatre transferring to the West End and so forth, but the majority of small- and medium-scale theatre companies adopt one of two entirely different business models: either they pitch for grant-derived funding, or they make work to sell directly to audiences, upon whom they then depend for their very survival. And never the twain shall meet.
At its best, sure, the commercial model may do as McPherson imagines and reward the most worthy new work, but that statement alone is difficult to get your head around. Who determines 'worth' (as opposed to 'value' or 'value for money')? Is it the punter? The programmer? The critic? Doesn't this model under-represent minority audience groups? Doesn't it encourage theatre makers to be conservative to the point of stagnation? Doesn't it penalise novelty and give audiences what they ask for rather than what they actually want?
This last distinction is a crucial one. How often have we clamoured for sequels only to be disappointed when one is released? “Leave them wanting more” is a foundational philosophy of western theatre, but utterly anathema to the commercial producer, whose bills keep rolling in, refusing to defer to concerns about artistic probity.
So the profit-based model alone is deeply flawed, as those who excoriate McPherson have so eloquently remarked. But the public model isn't flawless by a long stretch. McPherson is right that audiences are now dangerously homogeneous – even the Arts Council is not reticent about saying so. Since new punters are not necessary to fuel a model which doesn't really incentivise outreach, audience demographics remain stubbornly unchanged from what they were years or decades ago. People living many miles from London subsidise new work which premiers in the theatres of the capital and is too rarely built primarily to tour. If public money subsidises cheap day tickets that's all very well, but non-Londoners can't afford to travel all the way down on the offchance there are some left for them that day.
All this aside, though, the greatest problem with the public funding model – and the point where I find myself endorsing McPherson (albeit cautiously) – is the cursory way in which 'legacy' is tacked on to the grant awarding process. If public money is to be targeted at developing new artists, new audiences and new inventions, then the long-term goal must surely be that those big organisations which have reaped the rewards for so long become independent over time, learning to stand on their own two feet, indebted to the public but no longer paid for twice-over by them. Answerable to their boards they must remain, and to charitable objectives where applicable, but crucially to audiences who notoriously vote with their feet. Operations like the National Theatre, the Barbican and the RSC should begin to wean themselves off their continual recourse to the public purse and craft art for everyone. That doesn't mean that everyone should like everything they stage – far from it – but that they must diversify; they must respond – not just to the raised voices of a congregation of converts, but to the demands of a wider public whose taxes too have helped sustain them thus far. A middle ground in the private/public funding debate; a more responsive, healthy, challenging theatrical culture for the many and the few.
In Edinburgh, the dust is still settling on the Royal Mile. As the last performances of the 3,193 shows produced this year as part of Europe’s largest arts festival came to a close last week, the curtain fell on a sea of tired but elated performers, pundits, punch-lines and plaudits. Reverend Productions was not producing work this year, but independently I directed a show at Ghillie Dhu and our erstwhile Producer, James, also had a show on at the Merchant’s Hall, so we all travelled up to support and see some theatre.
Normally I plan my Fringe experience well in advance. I scrutinise the programme to within an inch of its life, then comb the city for flyerers with intriguing or outlandish pitchs. Like most Fringe regulars I listen to a network of friends, colleagues, technicians (who see – and hear – everything!), producers, promoters… and then, of course, once the whole thing is up and running, I turn my attention to the reviews.
No actor, I would hazard, ever comes to the end of a lifelong career entirely satisfied with his or her press. Theatre criticism must be – in some form – as old as the theatre itself, and whereas Sheridan’s The Critic may be among the more perceptive satires of the reviewer’s art, dramatists and dramaturgs have been preoccupied with their press since long before the advent of the printed newspaper. In the internet age – when, as they saying goes, everyone’s a critic – this preoccupation frequently manifests itself as obsession, such that it’s hard not to feel in constructing a play that you are setting out to please two masters: the paying audience and the critics who precede and, albeit subliminally, condition them to approach your work in a particular way.
There is a strange kind of symbiosis between press and performers. We court the critics, without whose seal of approval full houses seldom follow. But they need us too – we are their subject matter; their bread and butter. Brecht was firmly of the view that all theatre really needs is an actor and a spectator. Increasingly in the Western World the critic positions himself as the invaluable middle-man; the broker; the marriage councillor, reconciling suspicious punter with self-conscious entertainer. It is not uncommon for the curtain to be held before a press night opening because some particularly renowned reviewer is held up in traffic. At a festival as large as the Edinburgh Fringe, where audiences in single digits are far from unknown and where vast sums of money are staked on the off chance of a break, your reviews really matter. But who writes them? And how do we, the punters, read and interpret them?
In his book Great Moments in the Theatre the Times critic Benedict Nightingale acknowledges the inherently subjective aspect of his job. “Great theatre,” he tells us, “can be excellent or unforgettably bad or strikingly in between. It can doubtless be cathartic, whatever that means, and very occasionally it can be magical, whatever that means.” Glad we’ve cleared that up. He actually makes a very fair point, though: if the purpose of theatre is fundamentally to entertain (and I believe it is) then each one of us will respond to it in different ways depending on how we like to be entertained. Much as a Stanislavski-inspired actor will base his character choices in part on a set of ‘given circumstances,’ so too the given circumstances within which an auditor (or ‘spectator’ – for theatre is both seen and heard) receives those character choices will condition his or her response to the play as a whole.
And herein lies the challenge for the critic. How to report on a play in such a way as to best serve a reader whose given circumstances are as unknown to him as his would be to that same reader. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander (or, for that matter, the Nightingale). Just because a production inspires you with a sense of catharsis or magic, can you be sure that it is having the same effect on the person in the seat three rows in front?
So what makes a good critic? What qualities must they display? Objectivity is largely impossible in a medium designed to entertain, since as human beings we all find different things entertaining. Consensus and the test of time may identify great writers like Shakespeare and Sheridan as worthy of their place in a critical canon, but how do you evaluate a new piece, as it were, in a vacuum? Knowing, moreover, that your verdict may forever colour its future reception and longevity? These questions are especially pertinent in an environment like the Fringe, where much of the work on offer is unfinished; where experimental artists go to experiment; where vulnerable ideas are tentatively exposed to an uncompromising critical spotlight. We artists might be tempted to argue that a critic’s job is to support new and exciting ideas; but a critic also has an obligation to her public, to her editor, to her newspaper, and to her profession. If all criticism were positive in tone, what use would it be in helping a punter narrow down his list of options? On the other hand, if we empower critics to tells us what we should and should not see, don’t we dilute our own critical agency? And isn’t that a cop-out? How, after all, do they know what we, as individuals, are most likely to respond to?
I’ve heard it argued that a critic should have seen a lot of theatre. Fair enough, but are they then competent to reflect the interests of a theatre virgin? I’ve heard it argued that a critic should have a strong academic background. Fair enough, but doesn’t that risk academicising a visceral medium and excluding work which comes from a place of genius as yet unrecognised in academic circles (I ask this as an academic myself)? I’ve heard it argued that a critic need only be a good writer. Fair enough, but don’t they also need to evince good judgement? I’ve heard it argued that a critic need only be a good judge. Fair enough, but who, in turn, is the judge of their evaluative capacities? An editor? A newspaper proprietor? A corporate sponsor? Or – in the blogosphere – perhaps no one at all.
These are large and serious questions, and I hope to begin to answer some of them over the course of a lifetime in the theatre. For now, I simply ask, ‘who guards the guards?’ If we are content to base our theatre-going habits on the predilections of people we’ve never met, isn’t it worth finding out a bit about them first? And isn’t it worth, once in a while, taking in a show that’s been so universally savaged that you might find yourself the only person in the audience? You never know: depending on your given circumstances, you might just stumble onto genius.