Reports from the Theatres Trust Annual conference focus on where our theatres let us down in their suitability for great dramatic experiences in the 21st century. And for 21st century expectations of collaboration and comfort.
The tirade against black box theatres led by Jason Barnes and echoed by leading theatre directors, designers and architects chimes with the current vogue for theatre taking place out of the box and out of the proscenium arch. Theatre critics are keener and keener on the site specific and on the visual art/digital cross art form theatre that is a feature of the age of convergence. There is a general ennui around plays in the theatre, prosc arch or black box demonstrated by a lack of growth in audiences and a lack of enthusiasm from critics and the profession. This is not surprising in the internet age, as we want to collaborate more and more and the proscenium arch is a symbol of them and us and to and from, not we and with.
Culture Minister Barbara Follett and Bonnie Greer complained about the anachronistic conditions in most of our theatres which still sees most of us cramped and queuing for the toilets. To say nothing of the inflexibility of the performance times at 730 in the evenings.
We also have to face the unpalatable truths about theatre in the 21st century. Increased public subsidy across the board has neither delivered increased or extended audiences, nor sustained quality across the board. And we have a recession which means that our present arsenal of theatres is probably not sustainable.
We have to question then, why are we so intent on preserving theatre buildings?
The Theatres Trust Act 1976 was an important parliamentary act to prevent the previously unstoppable tearing down of theatres in the 20th century to make way for shopping centres and ring roads. Truthfully, we had too many theatres 30 years ago as a legacy of the days before cinema and television, where theatres were the only real place for public entertainment. There was not a commercial business model and neither sufficient audience demand nor sufficient supply of public money to prop up theatres which were surplus to requirement. But we needed the Act and the Trust set up as a result to stop us losing important national treasures represented by some of our fabulous theatre buildings.
The objects of the Trust are to promote the better protection of theatres for the benefit of the nation
theatre” means any building or part of a building constructed wholly or mainly for the public performance of plays;
But should ‘protection’ of theatres for plays be the priority now? We need great theatre and we need creative hubs throughout the land to provide a home for theatrical experiences. We need all our creative and arts venues, and theatres, to provide contemporary conditions for the creative experience and audience comfort. But the focus on preservation of theatres needs to be in the context of what we need our 21st century cultural infrastructure to be and not the other way round.