Sam Freeman

Storytelling | Theatre | Arts Marketing

A 21st Century Theatre

There have been two questions that have been in the back of my mind for the last three months.

The first, slightly randomly, is what will the new series of the X Files be like? I mean will they recapture the magic? In this digital age of intrustive observation is an FBI agent on the ground still a useful tool? Will it be any good?

Well actually we do now know and the answer is, “it’s not as good as we remember”. The originality of the early series have been lost as what was innovative became pervasive and then, in time, became, old fashioned.

The second is much more mundane and has been prompted by work and is the question of what a twenty first century theatre looks like. I think it’s a good if also massively frustrating question, we should be pushing towards a vision of the future we are incessantly told, a Utopia where, presumably people line up every night clamouring for the latest piece of new writing instead of the show on Netflix.

It’s a tricky question because I think every time we get close to answering it we place ourselves in what can feel like an uncomfortable situation with an uncomfortable proposition. People are not lining up at our doors fighting for tickets. There are swaths of the population who don’t buy into us conceptually or are excluded financially or intellectually. Do we really matter to the population as a whole? Are we making a difference?

With that in mind I started thinking about my dream theatre. I know, it’s gone all a bit grand designs. I started thinking about when I was 16, working at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and my dream was to be an Artistic Director. At that point if you’d asked me that question my answer would have invariably involved an obscene amount of Ayckbourn and Godber, the odd Tim Firth play and, well, that was it really. Just no fucking Shakespeare – he’s dead, get over it.

Now some 15 years later and asking the same question the theatrical repertoire would undoubtedly be broader (still no more of that shit house Shakespeare, single hand preventing theatre from moving on for 400 years – I’m not a fan, can you tell?) but now my focus would be less about what’s on stage, but more about the very nature of what community is about and how it is supported to flourish.

I used to go to a bar called Mello Mello in Liverpool. At first I just liked it because it was warm, no-one bothered me while I wrote, the cake was good, coffee was cheap and it was full of cool but not hipster people. I felt horribly uncool (as many readers will know is entirely true). But after a while it felt like my place, the nods from people who would go on to be friends, the new cakes I’d be excited to try, the absurd shows, even the crapness of the toilets, it had something intangible that brought together a community of people. I visited 4 times a week. When it closed I was devastated. Tonight after work (and a particularly shitty day) I walked towards it in need of a pick-me-up and then realised and instead got the bus home to write this feeling glum (Louise is away this week, expect more blogging than usual).

So many theatres profess to have community at their core – this ideas of being the centre of our community – but how often do we really interrogate what that is? Do we actually mean it? If community is at the core of what we do, what is it that this country, our towns, cities and villages need, that will bind us, make us stronger, happier, then as a supplementary question, is what we do, is how we operate fit for fulfilling this purpose? Who is our community? If we’re funded then should our responsibility be to make that as open and accessible as possible? Surely we should be there to protect and bring together everyone?

Damian Cruden at York Theatre Royal once did a speech to the staff that stuck with me. He told everyone in the room that we weren’t there to serve the shows, nor the theatre, the management, or ourselves, we were there to serve the people of York, the citizens of our community. It was probably the most inspiring thing I’ve heard.

The challenge for theatres, to become more relevant again, I think, is about how we start to have community in our everyday lives and make what we say and do match more. How do we become a 21st century theatre, how are we successful, how do we have people clamouring at our doors. It starts with community not art.

Things to ponder…

In a theatre designed around community…

  • how much is a coffee?
  • how much is a ticket?
  • when are they open?
  • do they have open sessions for you to chat to the directors/managers