Some ramblings (or hate filled communist rant depending on your inclination towards protecting ‘the youngsters’) on the whole Masque of the Red Death debacle (see my review a few posts below).
Andrew Haydon wrote the following, in response to things I said on a Guardian message board:
I'm deliberately not doing this on the Guardian blog thread where the same discussion has kicked off, but I'm interested by: "The whole experience feels a bit like an event for the cool kids and those ‘in the know’, the public school PR people usher important people past you in the queue at the start of the evening and people in the bar are all wannabe conceptual something or other or models. Nothing wrong with that, but the event does have a calculated air of exclusivity."Primarily I'm interested in why you think it's "calculated". Leaving aside your class-based issues (such as are more fully detailed on the Guardian thread) - issues which I find it remarkable that you foster, incidentally, Sean - I do wonder whether it was just an unfortunate series of coincidences. After all, press nights can be alienating enough for members of the press, let alone the poor sods who aren't being made much of by PR types. However, in the past I've also found the BAC quite an alienating place - less so nowadays, particularly since I now have a few friends that work there (I hope this doesn't make me part of any "in-crowd", I think we' all hate that). I wonder if its something to do with the building as much as any person's fault. Which theatres do you find less alienating? What could the BAC do to be more welcoming (short of banning visits from public school pupils, which, when put baldly, does look a little unfair)? Serious questions...
My response to this and other comments:
I regret saying anything now! I didn’t think that the production was much beyond superficialities, but enjoyable superficialities that can keep people amused for quite some time, and I am concerned that these superficialities are becoming the credo of a certain kind of theatre makers and critics (how we should hate narrative and the spoken word!), and that I don’t see much development happening (looking at the last three Puchdrunk shows I’ve seen for example, essentially not much difference). This is by no means me arguing against innovation and new ways of working in the theatre, or that theatre must be linear and narrative based, I’ve had some of my favourite theatrical experiences in such productions, but neither am I automatically going to jump for joy at the latest Punchdrunk or Kneehigh just because it is the emerging orthodoxy; I want to feel the quality as well as the width, and I wont succumb to mass hysteria or self delusion. Beyond that (on TMOTRD) I should have shut my mouth, because I was attempting to be humorous, and I was a tad over the top, but it came of genuine feelings. Then the responses from self important po-faced idiots who don’t like other people having an opinion (defending ‘youngsters’, get a life!), made me become rather self important and po faced, because they made me angry. But sadly, it will probably make me censor myself on future occasion, because I can’t be doing with bile filled message board exchanges.
For the record I have no class hatred, I am not a class war member and I do not throw bricks through rich peoples’ windows (‘some of my best friends are rich, they’re alright once you get to know them’). I do however dislike privilege, similarly I don’t like cliques, I do judge a show by the content and not the hype surrounding it, and I certainly do think that (contemporary and subsidised) theatre needs to open up to a wider audience (which includes representations of all classes, income levels and types of people in contemporary playwrighting, from Pure Gold or White Boy both at the Soho Theatre and both about inner city life, to That Face at the Royal Court about a upper class family falling apart, or indeed non metropolitan fare like Stoopud Fucken Animals at the Traverse, and stuff representing all ages, for example Burn/Chatroom at the National or Jenufa, about to hit the Arcola. Ditto for race, gender, sexuality and disability, particularly learning disability which seems to be totally ignored). I do resent upper class domination (when I come across it), and people who have a great sense of entitlement and a self congratulatory manner (who are by no means all upper class). Please don’t be all amazed and shocked that I foster such awful ideas. I suspect that if I were an upper middle class playwright it would be perfectly acceptable for me to do a bit of rich/privileged persons bashing in my daring new play (or have we totally moved on to sympathetic wealth creator as the protagonists? Has the social conscience of theatre gone out the door and been replaced by a slavish obeisance to simplistic scenarios that don’t look at the how’s and whys in our culture because we’re not really very interested anymore. Some of the ‘social realism’ plays that I have seen recently haven’t been much more than representing a story or basic moral, which of course is essentially what a play is (or can be, I don’t want to exclude those non narrative pieces), but exploration of who we are and how we got there should be a part of any intelligent play- or where we might be going too, things like The Ugly One, currently at the Royal Court). I actually think there is a problem with the uniformity (even if just in attitudes) of some of the people who run our theatres, I really don’t think they are accurately representing our society, they might give tickets to the local comp, but how are they trying to broaden not only the audience, but the people behind the desks. It seems to me that one might follow the other, and to make the case that there aren’t enough good women/ethnic minorities/working class(they do still exist, trust me)/whoever who are interested is beyond feeble, like the deluded people who still think it’s ok that our parliament isn’t even near gender equality (what, are half the women in the country defective?), and that we don’t need to address these issues.
Taking that point a little bit further, and theatres are always talking about access and new audiences etc (or sometimes seem to be). Well, if there is a genuine motivation for such things, have that represented in the plays you commission, the staff you employ and your artistic vision (which works very well for some theatres). I do believe that social change should be happening in this country, a progressive challenge to the old guard (do we want a monarch, an established church, a house of lords? What do we want from the city money people, how should big business be treated? Is consumerism and conformity the way forwards, is a Tesco in every corner a positive thing?), but I’m no revolutionary by a long stretch (I believe in the police, nice things, holidays and I don’t like terrorists, I’d even go so far as to say I’m a bit of a Gatskill-ite!). I think that many theatre people are actually instinctively conservative and have little interest in the values of openness and access that they have to give lip service to in order to get funding. I can tell you, I really have met some very reactionary and useless people who work in theatre. Are some of the bigger question being raised in the theatre, or are plays becoming too samey and safe. Yes and not would be my cop out answer, I do see an awful lot of flaccid drama across the theatre at the moment.
On our esteemed critics, whilst I don’t pillory them simply for their age, experience or gender, as some have, I do believe that the majority of them are out of touch and a little band that only really enjoy talking to themselves. We do need critics who are more representative, though experience is also important (and once doesn’t preclude the other), and we shouldn’t just chuck people out because they are older. If we go down the route that some people are suggesting, we’ll have a similar bunch of out of touch people, but who worship ‘alternative’ theatre as their religion and eschew ‘traditional’ forms. Can’t we have something in between? Do we have to have a war for the critical soul? I’d rather fight for critics becoming more like ordinary audience members, and not having so much to do with press agents and industry people. We need to change the press night system, and have several press previews, like they do in NYC. Critics can still have their programmes gratis, but no free wine or corporate glad-handing in the interval. They should sit with ordinary members of the public and not a bunch of backers and z list Celebes as they often do now (that can be the opening or gala night, after the press have been, or before if they like, and big crap shows will do so if they expect a drubbing from the critics, don’t want to spoil the gala the day after the reviews are out). Is there any wonder that there is a disconnect between critics and the public. When was the last time most critics ever spoke to a member of the public (not including their family and friends, or the 'informed' types like us)! I’ve seen them at press nights, huddling together or ignoring the world completely.
I have no problem with the BAC, I’ve enjoyed many a show there over the years. If anything I’ve found it sterile and physically uninviting (not artistically though).
Turning to audiences. I do look at audiences, I talk to strangers at the theatre (as I usually go alone) and ask them what they think (which, for a theatre person, as I cant help but think myself, as my life revolves around it, is fascinating. At Bad Girls The Musical, I talked to a couple who had paid over £60 each for their tickets through a third party agency, I was sitting on a Saturday night in the meagrely populated stalls with them having been upgraded from the balcony, as often happens. To hear about their experiences, the 60 mile round trip, the expense, the excitement, and most importantly what they thought of the show was almost as interesting as the show itself. They were very disappointed, and not happy at having spent so much money on such a poor production. For me it doesn’t matter, I wasn’t there to enjoy myself (I somehow can’t believe that I’m writing that, because I usually do get great enjoyment from the theatre, but the experience good or bad is what counts. I often enjoy bad shows too, in some perverse way), but to see what the production was like, and thereby possibly enjoy myself. I have seen every production in the West End, I can go any night I wish, there is rarely excitement for me at sitting in an Edwardian auditorium anymore, though I do love some of them. So to hear people who think of the theatre as glam and desperately wanting a great night out gives me pause for though. Crap theatre is pretty sad, as are people having a special night ruined by a single wrong decision. I wished them farewell with recommendation to go and see The Sound of Music and Cabaret, both of which I adore and, from our conversation, think they would enjoy far more than Bad Girls. It is also amazing to speak to people who have no idea about how booking and agencies work, that is why they often end up being horribly overcharged). I can’t help but having an impression of the atmosphere of the venue and production/company/institution. Who can do anything but? To not take any notice of your environment is impossible. If I feel uncomfortable or unwelcome it effects my overall experience.
Perhaps I am a very strange person, and this will sound like a terribly unfair rant to some of you (and I’m not saying this about the whole of the theatre, just about some, at the moment modest, sections). I love theatre, politics, current affairs and all kinds of other things that could be called the arts. I don’t have very much to do with the commercialism that seems to (worryingly) dominate society (I don’t own a pair of trainers for example, I have a single pair of shoes, I am what you would call unfashionable). I do think that the theatre, or at least people around certain sections of the theatre, have become a little bit too insular and trendy for its own good (and in doing so perhaps a tad glossy and soulless. I would cite TMOTRD and A Matter of Life and Death as recent examples, maybe even the Complicite at the Barbican). Sometimes it feels more like a fashion show than a theatre event, and I am deeply concerned that the artistic future of theatre culture (i.e the audience, who is clearly being drawn by the product) could possibly lie with people who are more interested in their ipod thingies and looking good than in the world around them (I’m not fingering the creators of those shows for that, but those shows have all had an air of this about them, and yes, I am looking at the audience here too), I see insularity amongst these people (and they are by no means the understandably self obsessed teenagers alone, middle aged men seem particularly partial to the theatre wanker equivalent of the Shoreditch twat). Should I just get stop worrying about it, forget it? Maybe I should but I know that a large part of the theatregoing population is alienated by the colonisation of theatre by the fashion industry, from ragged troupers to blackberry business people in shabby chic in a few generations (yes, I’m joking, I know how privileges and posh the theatre has been since the advent of TV and even film, but theatre has also been a populist entertainment for centuries too)! I care about the theatre deeply, and I don’t want a glossy profession full of visual spectacle, but that doesn’t take people on any kind of a real journey (emotional, intellectual, educational even). Theatre should be a forum to air the issues affecting society, as well as to entertain, to make people marvel, and give people some escapist fun. Remember Artaud wanted a visceral connection, not just a nice looking product. Maybe it is theatre representing the audience, the increasingly affluent middle class, but theatre should be pushing in its own direction and creating its own audience. I mentioned to one friend several months ago, one who is not a theatre person, The Masque of the Red Death, ‘oh, it’s brilliant I’ve heard’. This was because it is fashionable, hyped in advance. Not one performance had taken place when he made this comment. Similar can be said of several theatre companies (‘I love Complicite’ when the last thing she’d seen was a decade ago). This is all coming from moderately well informed middle class people and is totally invention.
Gosh, I’ve gone on for ages, and been very unstructured, so if anyone is reading this, sorry. I’ll bring it to a close soon.
What theatres do I find less alienating? It varies from show to show. The Lyric Hammersmith for Rough Crossings was perfect, a nice audience, no style police, relaxed. Sometimes I feel a little out of place amongst a totally elderly audience, but usually it is walking through the Royal Opera House where there are a great deal of very wealthy people clearly spending a vast a amount of money, that makes me feel out of place (but not really uncomfortable). Being a lone man at Dirty Dancing was also ‘fun’! Actually, it is the single person thing that is most interesting, most theatres are fine, I don’t think about it, but when I go to certain fringe things (smaller venues) and gay plays, being a lone (fat) man dressed in a suit makes me feel uncomfortable or self conscious, but more than that it clearly makes the other people feel very uncomfortable or judgmental!
What could BAC do? Well, the show is the show, it attracts the crowds it attracts, the PR has been done and the tickets booked. Maybe I’m asking for things not to be so cool, but of course this sells the tickets, creates buzz and sells more tickets (which is good for the theatre). This doesn’t necessarily lead to fulfilling work. It seems ‘conscious’ because the whole endeavour just has an air of ‘we’re so alternative and crazy’ about it, with the club nights and fancy dress, and clearly hype towards certain audiences (but actually I don’t think there is anything much radical or surprising about the show, just that it looks amazing). Shout at me if you like, but I can’t really say much more about why it’s cool, you just know it is (and they so desperately want it to be, too). I know people seem to be enjoying themselves at the show, and so many people have rolled off superlatives about the piece, but praise is easy, constructive criticism much harder. I think people are inclined to say ‘it was brilliant’, when they mean ‘I quite liked it’, especially occasional theatregoers who firmly want their moneys worth of enjoyment, or those caught up in the zeitgeist hype. But who am I to judge the quality of their experience.