Theatre buildings are beguiling aren't they? It's hard to resist the notion that they really do soak up the essence of past performances into their very walls. There's a thrill in taking your seat, an expectation wrought by place. The orchestra tuning, the lights dimming are all part of it but not the whole. Theatres have power because, for the price of a ticket, you are allowed to enter that space. The show may be good or it may not but at least part of the thrill is being on the inside.
And that's the thing isn't it? We're always a little excited by permissive space. Who doesn't enjoy getting to stand behind the shop counter for a change. Isn't it fun to step inside the doorway marked “No unauthorised personnel”. We've been demarcating and assigning space for millennia. Who's to say that that isn't exactly what Stonehenge was meant to do. “You few, you can be here beside the bluestones but you lot – you have to stay beyond the sarsens!”.
You lot, yea, you lot. You, who'd have the mick taken out of you if your mates saw you near a theatre, you who can't afford the ticket price, yea, you there with behaviour problems, who're on medication or who live outside of town. You lot stay beyond the sarsens! Because wherever there are walls there is, by necessity, an inside and an outside and there are always more people on the outside. And here's the rub, these days they're often not even bothering to look in.
So the problem has become two-pronged. It's not just about inclusion, which in many ways is the easier problem to solve. It's also about audience development, re-engaging those who have even fallen out of love with that feeling of being on the inside; those who are no longer impressed by performance soaked walls. Some of the least successful theatres have lost the knack of making their audience feel special, as if being on the inside was a prize. They transact a deal, at a clinical box office, and that's the end of that. You pay, you see, you go. Chances are you never come back.
We have some great examples though, right here in Exeter, where theatres have succeeded in making entry into their permissive space attractive again. Entry through a groovy basement bar, like at the Bike Shed Theatre and into a David Lockwood's broader vision of performance development that is striving towards national recognition. Or at Cygnet Theatre, where their very longevity is testament to their huge band of supporting volunteers, who see themselves as part of a network that is nurturing quality repertory training. And more recently, what joy to see the huge returning audiences to the Northcott Theatre to see quality performance in their Christmas themed collaboration with the amazing Creative Cow. Those audiences proved that they are ready to be invited back into that space but they want more than that, they want to be invited into an ongoing story.
I believe that is why Interwoven's Squilometre concept works on both levels. Working without a ticket price and out-of-doors are incredibly important and deliberate inclusion decisions. There is something so connected and completely joyful about actually being there on the streets. A totally unbarred experience for both performers and audience.
But we are landscape-connected too. Because we understand that audience development depends upon making a successful invitation to share a specific place. In that sense, we do have a theatre, it's just that it encompasses one square kilometre of land. The space we invite our audience into already includes their streets, their shops, their homes, their schools. Instead of inviting them into a walled-in permissive space, we've expanded it to include where they already are!
And we understand that our on-going commitment to them is more important than any walls ever could be.
If you'd like to read more about how performance without walls, ticket price or arts funding can not only be possible but may actually essential to the survival of our art then please read on ....
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community engagement. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community animation and working in the gift,