All-round Good and Smart Boi James Varney tweeted something earlier.
“it’s things like this that make me think theatre is broken and serving the wrong people
tied closely to thoughts that ‘theatre’ and ‘art’ aren’t actually useful/can’t do the work that i expect from them and maybe i should care less about them”
(This was in reference to his earlier tweet re the London theatre scene and its inherent exclusivity. That’s a Whole Other Post)
I RTed it to indicate my enormous social awareness, obv.
We then had a fruitful (but also probably ultimately fruitless) DM convo about how the industry is fundamentally flawed. (Was it even helpful? Was it just us airing our grievances and bitching? Because that’s fine too but we need to do more than that) Eventually, The Writer came up. It’s odd, seeing that tweet from James and seeing all this gushing, excitable chat about what sounded like a properly radical, properly Dangerous show, all in the space of about an hour.
What is a dangerous piece of theatre? What does that actually fucking mean? Seriously?
I’ll get to that.
There are times when theatre twitter gets wrapped up in all this really detailed and esoteric chat about How To Make This Industry Better and part of me relishes it because it feels great and encouraging cos I can see that like there are people Like Me! who actually want to make theatre/art/whatever that is accessible and diverse etc etc. But then at the same time there’s this voice in my head which goes
what good is this actually doing?
I mean maybe
Maybe we shud just burn it all down
why r we focusing so much on this bullshit?
Why don’t we just destroy this whole thing?
Like seriously i dunno if we should even rebuild it after we destroy it
Let’s just raze it dance in the ashes redistribute all the money that gets poured into subsidising the NT in Actual Practical Ways instead of us fannying around pretending to be other ppl
I should probably not be this cynical at 22. But I don’t think I’m Being cynical, honestly, I think I’m just Being a product of this trash society that has truly fucked my generation etc etc. So hear me out for a sec.
I want a much broader demographic of people to start going to the theatre than are going now. People of colour, the queer community, working class people, disabled people – I want them all to go to the theatre and sit there and feel comfortable and like they belong in that space and I would like them to feel Seen.
But when we talk about accessibility schemes – when we talk about creating a scheme of £5 tickets for first time theatre goers – yeah that’s ace, that will get Some new people in but ultimately, when we think about it, what is the aim? Because surely what you’re going for there is an introductory type of thing that will entice first time audience members in the hopes of making them regular audience members who will eventually start paying full prices at a semi-regular rate to watch people walk around onstage and pretend to be things that they’re not. That’s not accessibility, surely!! Accessibility would be having £5 tickets for fucking EV ER Y ONE. At risk of sounding like a mad bitch WE’RE ALL PART OF THIS FUCKING SYSTEM THAT IS GOING TO EAT US ALL ALIVE.
Audiences are fundamentally customers. That’s fine. (Like it’s not. But it is. Ya get me) So that means that attempts at diversity and accessibility end up feeling like they’re playing into this big system that just wants more bums on seats, more tickets sold, more money made. This industry is part of the free market (I guess?? I am Not Sure eek) and maybe I don’t want the stuff I make to be part of That Market. (Sorry James I took that from u)
I dunno what to do because it almost feels like everything is playing into this big upper hand (we’re getting controlled by The Man, don’t u know). I’ve been making arguments for better PoC representation onstage and heard myself saying things like “but don’t you want bigger audiences??? You’d make so much more money!!”. I co-organised a BME festival at UCL last term and it was the fastest selling drama society show of the year. That’s fucking amazing. I’m so proud and also so Not Surprised At All. Of course it sold out within a day. Of course your dry-ass Ibsen revival didn’t. But that’s how I justify bringing that festival back next year – by saying “well you know it sold incredibly well!!”. Why is that the arbiter??? It’s depressing af.
This leads me onto The Writer.
(that was all just massive preamble, don’t u know)
I think I thought it was great but I also think I thought it was bad and flawed. And that’s fine, it can be all those things. Before I went in I was standing across the street looking at the white stone of the theatre and watching people filter in holding glasses of white wine in the evening sunshine and I thought to myself – I think the Almeida has my least favourite audience in London.
There’s something about watching a play about sexism and feminism (ooh that word, that word feels too small and so stupid nowadays) and the Almeida audience chuckling knowingly and yet oh-so-shallowly at jokes about the patriarchy and capitalism and Waitrose. Jokes which are pointed at them. Hickson wrote for this space, didn’t she? She knew which audience she was writing for. It’s pointed at them and it’s slipping off their backs like water on duck feathers. It’s not fucking hard enough on them. You’re not necessarily a progressive bunch of people just because Corbyn is your MP, I want to screech.
I’ve thought for a while now that I dislike and distrust audiences and now I realise that it’s not audiences in general, it’s audiences at the National and the Almeida that I don’t trust – these people who pride themselves on their progressiveness, their open mindedness but betray themselves through their laughter. Why are we still writing for these people?
Enough about the audience.
(On another note – there’s something about a show which acknowledges its poshness and its whiteness but then doesn’t actually do much about it that does irritate me. I don’t think that’s totally fair though. Hickson wanted to write this specific story and she did and she acknowledges her limitations and that’s Fine but I just don’t know on a gut level if that actually is Fine. Ack)
There’s this fundamental disconnect between the play and the world outside it, I think, which is strange considering how influenced it is by the mundanity of everyday sexism. The Writer is unique, I think, because it talks about feminism (god there’s got to be a better word, everytime I say feminism nowadays i just see taylor swift and those notebooks with the word FEMINIST embossed in rose gold) and the way it, or rather patriarchy, intersects with capitalism. The beginning of the play has a young woman essentially saying that she wants to dismantle the patriarchy and bring down capitalism. She says it in the same breath because you can’t separate the two. Gosh that got a big laugh. And it is funny because the scale of it is ridiculous and incomprehensible but it’s also funny because she’s just a 24 year old girl, how adorably naive of her.
I take this play and its message seriously and I appreciate the seriousness with which it approaches the systems that it critiques. But what does that mean when I’m sitting in a theatre where ticket prices can go up to £50? What the fuck does that mean? How can this be a radical, dangerous thing to say when you are speaking from this seat of wealth and power? That laugh was indicative of so much. At the end of the play, these two old white ladies got up in front of me and said “God that was terrible”. Is something radical, did something succeed because it made two Islingtonites a little bit uncomfortable and annoyed?
What is the point of making something this intelligent, of pouring your energy into making something this detailed and nuanced and beautiful and putting it onstage for people to say in front of a backdrop, only for the audience to laugh and smile and then leave, clutching their wine glasses and swaying gently on their way back to the station? Surely there is something more practical we could be doing with our time?
What do I want, fundamentally? I want a fairer, more equal, more generous society. How do we get that? Really simply, I guess, through a redistribution of wealth from the top down. So why aren’t we doing that instead of theatre? Why am I even writing this instead of actually Doing something productive and helpful with my time? What is the fucking point of all this metatheatre and intertextuality and navel gazing if the fact of the matter is that the theatre cannot Really change anything?
I got cynical and I apologise. Maybe it’s exam season. But seeing work as angry and vibrant and desperate as The Writer sometimes, weirdly, makes me feel more hopeless than anything else.