498 BC: During a performance in the city of Athens’ 70th Festival of Dionysis, the temporary wooden seating set into the Agora, the public meeting place northern slope of the Acropolis, violently collapses. The Agora had worked for every kind of public gathering up to this point: you had a funeral, a wedding, a divorce, a government meeting, a foot race, or pretty much anything else, you took it to the Agora. But this catastrophic carpentry failure makes the people of the city think differently. They decide to break ground on a purpose-built venue for the new and burgeoning art form of theatre. It has sturdy stone seating, an innovative wide flat terraced stage called an orchestra, a roofed backstage structure called a skene, and a capacity of 17,000. We don’t know for sure what did in the old wooden seating. But I do find it interesting that it was a historical period with significantly above-average rainfall.
1609: the first decade of the Globe Theatre has been tough for William Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders. Their marshy site on the south bank of the Thames is a good location for attracting the unsavoury and rowdy wierdos that enjoy theatre, but also great for attracting severe and repeated flooding. They’ve had to build a whole new wooden embankment underneath it to take it further above the water table, and all on the revenue from performing only in summer. Suddenly, an opportunity opens up: the nearby Blackfriars theatre, fully roofed and stocked with the all-new invention of artificial lighting, becomes available for theatre performances. They decide to do a winter season there in between summer seasons at the Globe. It’s a big hit: In their very first year they make double what they did at the Globe.
Why do British people have this complicated yearning for alfresco activity, one that the other five rainiest countries in Europe don’t seem to share? It certainly predates the pandemic: British people have always dressed for the weather they want, rather than the weather they have, with shirtlessness in males occurring at all temperatures above a warm fridge from May onwards, and December nights out in a northern town being marked by the incredible and beautiful hubris of underdressed hen-dos. We have some of the biggest and best outdoor music festivals in the world, and revel proudly in the churning pits of mud that they create when they inevitably collide with rain. Now, a lot of theatre organisations are rushing to get it on this hustle as a reaction to the short-term outlawing of, and subsequent mid-to-long term audience uncertainty around, indoor performances. And indeed, so is mine, making and touring our first outdoor show, Hero & Leander, this summer. While it has been a fun creative journey making it, it’s also been absolutely a product of necessity, with hardly any indoor bookings happening this or last year. And why not hop on the bandwagon? The UK’s outdoor music festivals seem to be emerging untarnished from covid’s devastations, with Latitude 2021 selling out just a few weeks after the end of lockdown. So following that template seems like a no-brainer. But does the solution match the problem?
Entering the world of outdoor performance seems to have a lot of appeal – the lack of physical and, depending on ticketing systems, financial barriers to attendance seems to offer the chance to reach a whole new audience. Certainly the excitement of getting complete randos off the street to stop and engage with your work is a great feeling. And make no mistake, the UK theatre world’s current audience crisis is just the latest chapter in a long-running story of decline. Over the past decade of touring I have seen audiences at most places outside of London get older, smaller and whiter. My hot take, though, is that this isn’t about the buildings. This country is stuffed with beautiful, historic, spacious performing arts venues. On a practical level, these locations are a thousand times more comfortable and accessible than a field in the middle of nowhere, at least on all but our ten sunny days of the year. But people don’t feel that theatre buildings belong to them, or that what goes on inside is for them, despite their taxes paying for both. They are terrified of being bored to tears, patronised, infantilised or repressed by a tense, overly formal environment. There seems to be little awareness that anything outside of Shakespeare and panto even exists outside of London. So rocking up to a tent, field or square in that context is challenging to say the least. It’s been a wry aphorism of multiple festivals I’ve gigged at that the only sure-fire way to guarantee a good crowd at the Theatre or Poetry tent is to pray to the gods for torrential rain that will drive them in.
The UK’s music festivals sit on a decades-long tradition. They are usually staffed by small armies of stewards running unbelievably sophisticated logistical operations, and even they can go horribly wrong at times. I would argue that, (strange national Freudian love of being rained on aside, and lacking an indoor Glastonbury for comparison), fans’ loyalty to festivals is despite their outdoor location, rather than because of it, and is driven much more by a meaningful connection to the programme of events, artists and general vibes that they curate. It’s easy enough to acquire a cheap marquee from China, and even cheaper artists from up the road, but in the end, you’ve just got the same problem in a flimsier building. And the artists who already have to contend with phenomenal uncertainty around funding and income, have the added risk that Zeus, Thor, Ukko or Yu Shi will send down their storms to take that hard-won gig away from them, possibly taking their payment with it if venues are too unscrupulous to give proper weather cancellation clauses in their contracts. That climate change will only rank up this risk in the years to come is almost too obvious to state.
Maybe I’m way off base, dumping on a new movement before it’s even got off the ground. But if theatres and theatre-makers have something to offer, maybe it’s something distinct and different from the hectic noise, mud and mayhem of the festival circuit – a space of quiet, of calm, of reflection? Somewhere out of the rain, away from the street, a haven and a shelter. Maybe we should be proud of that, and try and restore public belief in the value of it, rather than chasing after something we’re less good at? If public trust in theatre is broken, it isn’t because of its location, and so doing a geographical won’t necessarily rebuild it. This ain’t Ancient Greece and it sure ain’t 498 BC anymore. We’ll probably never get 17,000 people on a hillside watching theatre again. But maybe we could be true to our own traditions, and focus on getting 170 people in a small town together in a room to experience something that might truly change them?
July 2011: for the first time in my career, I’m given exclusive access to a theatre studio, to play around with for a few hours before a performance of my first full-length show. I step out of the hot sun into a nearly pitch-black room. I sit in the middle of the floor and talk to the lighting technician as she slowly, one by one, brings the stage lights up. It feels hallowed, serene, maybe, just maybe, even sacred.
You can find out more about Jack’s current production Hero and Leander by Clicking Here