Are people who love theatre, theatre’s biggest problem? 

Convener(s): Lee Simpson

Participants: Tom Balley, Richard Smith, Chloe Preece, Bette Bourne, Laura Hayes, Tony Bell, Catherine Hoffman, Mary O’Connor, Stella Duffy (QUITE A FEW OTHER PEOPLE – PLEASE WRITE YOUR NAME AND I’LL TYPE IT IN)

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

An expanded version of the question would be…

‘Theatre seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis or at least in difficulty. There seems to be a core of both audience and artists who somehow manage to keep it going, but is the resultant relationship – and the results of that relationship – a healthy thing for theatre? 

‘Is theatre in crisis?’

‘Not if the state of theatre is exactly as you feel it should be. The size of the gap between what you feel is its potential and where it is probably indicates whether you think it is in crisis or not.’

There was a request for more clarity in the question. Who are these people who love theatre?


‘The people who are here’

‘Does the fact that people LOVE theatre mean that it is overprotected by them and so its development or evolution is stunted?’

‘There is a hardcore audience that loves it so much that it wants to maintain it as it is, that wants to keep it the way it is because it loves it that way, but that means that bits of it that might have to die, aren’t allowed to die’

‘They love it but end up pickling it.’

‘Theatre makers who love theatre sometimes – I think – feel that they don’t have to address the very basic challenges involved in putting on a show. The challenge of telling a story to an audience. I think theatre makers sometimes skip over the basics of that challenge because they feel that “it’s theatre – therefore people understand the language and vocabulary of that” but I think by not starting at a more basic level and addressing the basics of that challenge, theatre made by people who love theatre, speaks only to people who love theatre and everyone else feels left out.’

Parallels were drawn between this love of theatre and interpersonal love.

‘The kind of love that people have for theatre, if they had it for another person or a partner, would stifle the natural dialogue between those people.’ 

There was then some discussion about why it was that this kind of almost unconditional love occurred in theatre.

‘Because it is live. You have to attend to it in a different way because it is an interaction between human beings.’

There was a good deal of discussion about the nature of the audience group who love theatre. Many people made the point that you cannot lump them all together into one homogenous mass, however some people did feel that there were tendencies exhibited by this group which made some people feel that they were excluded from theatre. The audience who love theatre feel a sense of ownership of theatre and this can make some people feel excluded. This was likened to the sense of ownership that football fans have for their team. This made some people talk about how they feel excluded from football!

‘I can’t go to the Old Vic any more. Last time I went I felt sick. All the people were white and white haired and they were laughing at jokes which I didn’t get but I thought they were only laughing because the people onstage had told them that it was funny.’ 

‘I don’t go to the theatre because I think I’m not going to ‘get it’’.

The point was also made that even if there were shows or plays out there that people might like – how does one find them? How can one home in on work that one is not going to feel excluded from.

‘Theatre is like a big blob. Music is compartmentalised – punk, indie, dance – you know what you are going to see, as is film to some degree – there are different genres, but theatre is more like a blob’

‘I disagree. Especially in London the audience is very different for different things. Go to the NT and the audience will be different for Shaw, for DV8, different again for Katie Mitchell. Outside London, where there is less choice. Where a venue might have many different types of work passing through it, audiences will be braver and more eclectic in their choices, because they have less to choose from. They are less likely to say ‘We don’t like…’ and are more likely to say ‘We’ll give …. a try.’ 

There followed some discussion about potentially expanding the range of work that the core theatre audience would enjoy.

‘I think there are 2 separate issues – the audience in London and the audience outside London, because they are very different in what they are prepared to try.’

The conversation returned to the perceived audience who LOVE theatre.

‘I sit in the NT and I hate myself for hating the people who are sitting around me.’

‘The core theatre audience are like the radio 4 audience in that they have a power and influence disproportionate to their numbers, which allows them to exercise a disproportionate influence over keeping theatre the way they want it to be.’ 

‘There are certain powerful West End producers who under-estimate the intelligence of this audience. Just look at the state of design in the West End. They think that audience can’t imagine a room unless it has 3 walls and a door.’

‘There are some people outside London – powerful producers who are exactly the same.’

‘Is it possible to support this audience to change by promoting a different kind of theatre?’

‘There’s lots of waxing lyrical about addressing issues like this, but precious little actual action taken to make fundamental change happen.’

The conversation moved on to drama education and the type of education in drama that people receive as a way of addressing both the type of work that gets made and also of giving young people a route into enjoying theatre.

Issues raised were:

The way we educate

What young people are taken to see at Christmas

The way in which young people are first introduced to theatre.

‘There is very little theatre for 11 – 18 year olds and this is an important time for people to experience it.’

‘Drama teaching tends to be about just performing, but there are many other aspects to theatre which young people might enjoy and get them involved.’

‘We did a workshop with young people and divided them into groups from which they had to be lighting designers, stage managers etc. as well as actors’ 

‘The more people do it, the more people will love it’ 

‘Who are the drama teachers? In Canada the subject is of low status and is done by whoever is available – the librarian or the sports teacher.’

‘We should argue for better youth theatre.’

The conversation came back to the sense of exclusion that some people feel around theatre. The convener said that he felt excluded by it and was asked why.

‘When I sit in the audience, the most common response I have is that it makes me feel stupid. Everybody else clearly gets it, but I don’t. In the end you get fed up with being made to feel stupid so I don’t bother going. I cannot imagine going to the theatre for pleasure.’ 

‘I run a touring theatre and when you go to community and they don’t get the show, the community say that the show is stupid not them. Theatre is about a community coming together and maybe that is harder to get in London’

‘I heard a statistic which was that twice as many people take part in amateur theatre than go see professional theatre’

This made the convener realise that he was perfectly happy watching amateur productions because he was very clear about the motives of the people putting on the show. They enjoy doing it so they do it.’

‘There’s a difference between loving theatre and being stagestruck.’ Most people are stagestruck. They think that working in theatre is fun or something. It's never fun. At its best it’s fucking horrible.’


After this very wide ranging (and sometimes off topic) conversation there was an agreement between the main spokesman for the LOVE theatre group and the convener.

Theatre sort of has its back to the wall. But people (both theatre makers and audiences) love it, and want it to keep going. But maybe their love is a little too rigid, too suffocating, too unwilling to allow theatre to change, and if necessary for parts of it to die so that new things can be re-born.

‘We’re so bad at love in so many ways.’