Keep away from my theatre - or else
Andy Arnold, the man who runs The Arches, reckons that the ultimate piece of theatre would take place when nobody was allowed to come. He’s only half-joking . . .
King’s Theatre, Queen’s Hall, Theatre Royal, Civic Theatre, Citizen’s Theatre, National Theatre, Royal Lyceum . . . They all sound a bit archaic, part of the Empire, like old English pub names. Why do theatres puff themselves up so much? Far more people play badminton every week than go to the theatre, but the shuttlecocks are happily floating back and forth above heads and over nets in nameless and unpretentious halls throughout the land. How much is the theatre these days part of the grand scheme of things? Well, it’s not really. It’s not on the radar of the vast majority of people - even at world gatherings of socially dysfunctional thespian types like, say, the Edinburgh Festival. For a few brief weeks we delude ourselves that theatre has some impact on people’s lives; and then, come September, the moment is gone for another year.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a total theatre nut myself. A theatreholic. As soon as I stop working on one theatre show I’ve got to start on another or I get the shakes. Badly. But I prefer to indulge my habit in private, maybe with a few actors - who I need - and away from the glare of daylight. And I don’t want to watch other people do it. That’s selfish and self-obsessed, I know, but have you met a junkie who isn’t? I don’t want to be trapped between people in rows of seats all facing the same way in what is quaintly still called ‘the stalls’ or ‘the dress circle,’ watching plays stuffed with characters I don’t care about, looking around me and only seeing other people ‘in the business’.
The theatres themselves are the problem. My solution is simple: take theatre out of theatres, then we can all relax. I’m doing my next show in the cubicles of The Arches toilets. The last one, Inferno, was performed down thin, sightless corridors and the next one will hopefully be on a train. You meet interesting people that way.
Glasgow used to be famous for burning down its theatres. It tends rather to starve them to death these days, but why did we abandon that tradition? Maybe one Scottish theatre building should be kept for posterity’s sake - like the Globe in London, a tourist attraction of absolutely no artistic worth - but otherwise, just think what could be earned from all that prime real estate.
Ah, but the good thing about theatres (I hear you say) is that several hundred people can watch a play at the same time - and how many people can you fit into a toilet cubicle anyway? Well, who the fuck cares? (‘Audience development’ strategists look away now.) Over a few weeks, a few thousand people may go to see a play in a theatre. What percentage is that of the local population? Nought-point-whatever, roughly. The number of people in the population who may attend a theatre show is so relatively infinitesimal that it’s actually irrelevant. More important is the staging of a piece of drama in a context that will make it work, so that it might actually achieve what it’s meant to and might actually affect those who see it.
It’s not the witnessing that matters, it’s the discussion and controversy that the original stimulus provokes. I mean, did you actually GO to Tommy Sheridan’s trial? In fact, to be really affected by theatre, it’s much better that you don’t see the show at all. Then your imagination can take over.
A few years ago a play called Mobile Thriller was on at the Edinburgh Fringe. It involved two actors in the front seats of a car and an audience of two in the back. It was discussed in all the papers, in pubs and around water coolers and tens of thousands of people read about it, but how many people actually saw it? Two a night, to be exact. Meanwhile, a show was running at the same time each night at the local repertory theatre and was patronised by thousands of theatre-goers. How many of them discussed the play afterwards? None. Really. Take my word for it.
Some of the most important contributions to the 20th century stage came out of Samuel Beckett’s experiments with minimalism - culminating in Breath (world premiere in Glasgow, 1969). Here’s the play in full: Curtain up . . . amplified sound of a single breath . . . curtain down . . . and back to the theatre bar for long discussions about what it, and life, was all about. In the 21st century we should focus on the minimalism of the audience - culminating in the show which no-one is permitted to watch. Tickets would be like gold dust - if there were any to be had, which of course there wouldn’t be. I’m off back downstairs to rehearse my next opus and I may consider letting you come and see it ?" but you can’t bring a friend.
Spend A Penny, The Arches, Glasgow, Tue 26 Sep-Sat 7 Oct.