Theatre, The Church & Civic Centres
Firstly I just want to say I'm coming off the back of a week of celebrating All We Ever Wanted Was Everything opening at the Bush Theatre and I'm feeling a bit pickled. Excuse the invetiable incoherance of all this.
Today marks 100 years since the Armistace to end World War One. Every year I go to church to remember my family and remind myself to act within the value system I inherited from them. They were miners, dockers, doctors, solicitors, teachers, NHS workers, mayors... All of them in service of others. So naturally going into The Church of The High Seas in Stepney today to remember the service of the armed forces I am thinking about services.
This was a strange day. It strated normally. Some inaudible singing and a big organ. Then an older cockney man, in a red beret, stood up and started crying. He ran to the back of the room and sobbed uncontrobly saying repeatadly that "it's so hard." an older lady held his hand and he was so thankful; he was talking about the need for kindness and how her holding his hand was the nicest thing anyones done for him. Then another lady shushed him and he got upset and left because he didn't feel welcome. Something about the whole experience felt uniquely British. Everyone ignoring the one person that needs help and, of course, makes everyone feel uncomfortable except one kind person and then someone actually tries to stop the distressed person from inconvcining the other people so the distressed person leaves. It was horrific. But it was Britain. We like to pretend we care, we even go to church to make ourselves feel like we care, to convinces others we care, to be seen to be caring, but when faced with people who need help and make our lives feel imperfect. We turn our backs and stop seeing them. That's middle class Britain. There are some good people. But we are taught to "act in the greater good" in public spaces which means, sadly, covering up the unpleasant truthes of existing in a society. Posh people don't want poor people in waitrose. Good looking people don't want ugly people in clubs. White people don't want non-white people in their anythings.. (outside london).
After that though I felt welcomed, and loved, and a part of something bigger. I don't like praying in groups or sermons. It feels weird and forced. It feels like someone is telling me what I should be concerned with in spirituality. It feels like I'm being radicalised. It feels like I'm a sheep and not part of something bigger we're trying to work out. (I am coming back to Theatre and film I promise). Then there was a bit where everyone shook hands and suddenly I saw a community. Every one knew each other. They were raising each others children. They were meeting up for food. They were doing voluentary work. They were trying to solve the ills of the community (except for that one sshhing lady). And suddenly church became a whole heartedly good thing. It is a community. A community of shared values, of social action, of self reflection...
Theatre obviously can't take the social responsibility of the church but there is a lot it can take from it. How do you create a community of theatre goers? How do you move into a world where coming together to listen to stories as a society is a part of societies self reflection? What can we learn from the church?
Well... I think we need to think of Theatre as a Civic Centre for socital reflection. In order to make it for a society though it has to be affordable and welcoming. Theatre's have a number of assests: one of them being a building and number being people. We have rooms and we have staff. Theatre's should be opening it's doors to community groups all the time via drama for the lowest possible fee. There should be baby drama games, there should be reading groups for kids, there should be coffee mornings for older people, there should be book clubs, there should be music classes, poetry nights, short stories, conversations with artists, conversations with authors.. This should be a house for stories. For everyone. All the time. Not just on the stage. And it should all be pay what you can afford. All the revenue from opening up the space to the community should then go to discounting ticket prices for the community. If you're serious about creating a community it should be Pay What You Can Afford. All measures should be taken to achieving this. I know this isn't absolutely possibly but there should be a limited number of PWYCA for every show. And local groups should be given free tickets if they use the space. We need to have a community in theatre and that means a diverse audience: all generations, all creeds, all walks of life. It needs to feel like their home. That means opening up buildings beyond performances for learning and togetherness through story. For everyone. The performances should be the jewel in the crown. Not the entirity of it.