This was a fascinatingly expansive and broad session, that started with an introduction to the notion of Extra-Live theatre, leading to an in-depth discussion about audience access, theatre etiquette, and a multitude of points about the strength of theatre that embraces its liveness. This naturally and inadvertently led us to the heart of the main question of this Open Space - how can we work together to keep regional theatre alive?

Extra-Live is a term that was coined at Devoted & Disgruntled 10, at a session called by Jess Mabel Jones and Jess Thom about relaxed performances. Initially it was my semantic solution to the feeling that the word ‘relaxed’ carries potentially negative connotations, and an attempt to embrace the fact that theatre at which everyone is warmly welcomed is inherently more live and actively inclusive of the specific group of people who have gathered to watch the work. However over the past year and through many more discussions, meetings and a particularly brilliant open space session ran by Jess Mabel Jones at the BAC, it has grown into something different to and independent of ‘Relaxed’ theatre (although they are in many ways mutually inclusive). At its heart it is a movement that questions the concept of a traditional theatre ‘etiquette’ - we believe that people should be able to watch theatre in whichever way feels right for them. Not only does this have specific disability access benefits, it has the potential to break down social and demographic boundaries too. By dissolving the sense that theatre is a club, that it comes with a suggested dress code, a series of rules and with the risk of being judged, perhaps we can help change the way a whole host of people categorise the experience of going to the theatre. Rather than the commonly overheard feeling that watching a production is so much hard work, Extra-Live names a very-much pre-existing attitude that theatre is a communal, social and pleasurable part of life. Importantly the movement claims no originality or ownership over theatre of this nature, but gives a banner under which hundreds of brilliant companies (not least Improbable themselves) can proudly showcase their accessibility and open arms.

The following notes are a rough guide as to the general gist of the conversation:

- The Globe is an example of a large-scale theatre that effectively has relaxed audiences as a given (NB the concept of a silent audience in the dark is essentially a Victorian invention). *I could personally list so many brilliant theatres and companies that already offer the experience we are celebrating, but not wishing to miss anyone out I won’t try (although I will say that the BAC proudly terms itself an extra-live/relaxed venue.)

There was some conversation here (and indeed throughout the session) about whether there are certain kinds of work that can be/are extra-live, whilst others might not be suitable. Circus, comedy, cabaret, dance, performance art, improv etc. etc. were held up as forms that naturally lend themselves to a relaxed atmosphere.

*I personally don’t feel this distinction needs to exist, but acknowledge that some forms are more effortlessly relaxed than others.*

There was some feeling within the group that pieces with an intentionally strong fourth wall would sit particularly uncomfortably - Robert Wilson's productions and Harold Pinter were brought up as examples.

By way of unpicking this instinctive trepidation, we turned to what I believe is at the heart of any discussion about Extra-Live: Permission.

It is a well-known quantity that we have the ability to filter out all manner of visual and aural pollution. When in a public space, we are able to hold complex conversation while battling with loud music, hundreds of other voices, coffee machines, traffic etc. etc., all sounds that would naturally feel completely untenable in a piece of theatre. Whilst I'm clearly not suggesting that theatre should have to compete with roadworks and nearby bars and clubs, and am aware that it is watched in an entirely different mode, the principle still stands - the sounds that bother us are the ones we don't expect to be there, and therefore result in the feeling that something has gone wrong. At my open space session at the BAC, Jess Thom (aka Touretteshero) asked someone who was making a point about distraction whether he was having any difficulty filtering out her tics within the discussion - his (and indeed everyone else's) answer was that he had completely stopped being aware of them. I maintain that there is absolutely no reason why this should be different in any other context, so long as there has been a very simple and quick preparation. I can testify first hand from many relaxed performances and indeed going to the theatre with Jess loads of times that when the theatre or company has clarified that the audience won't be quiet and still, and that the performers are completely aware of this, there has never been any disgruntlement, shushing, tutting or any of the things that are definitely the case when no permission has been given to an audience to ('scuse my french) chill the fuck out.

And indeed in my experience these have been some of the most electric performances I've ever seen at the theatre.

*I think it's important to note here something that in fact came up later in the discussion. As Jess Thom has written very eloquently about, if Extra-Live were to be seen as a replacement of ‘relaxed’ there is a risk that the terminology puts the impetus on audience members with disabilities to provide additional entertainment value to a show. And it perhaps need stating that whilst Jess's body of work, profile, confidence and general attitude to her disability mean that she has no fear of her presence being personally announced by performers, it has to be acknowledged that there may be other audience members who couldn't think of anything worse. For this reason, we think it's important that individual relaxed performances are still available. What Extra-Live suggests is a change in attitude to the way in which all performances are marketed and introduced, so that everyone is made to feel welcome. And so if and when someone turns up to a show who can't or doesn't want to stay still and silent, there will be no risk of them receiving the treatment Jess describes in Backstage in Biscuit Land, where she was asked to sit in the sound booth by front of house staff. Indeed many other examples were given at this session, including a particularly upsetting one - Rhys from Hertford mentioned a production of the Tempest at which three disabled audience members were in attendance, and who weren't silent. Throughout people were tutting and looking at each other and afterwards many audibly and publicly asked for their money back. What makes this example particularly fascinating is that apparently one of the main reasons given for the request for a refund was that ‘clearly the disabled audience members were making noise because they were unhappy and uncomfortable’. Really this is just ignorance, and it's not particularly helpful to demonise the people who had jumped to this conclusion - I hold that if just a little moment had been taken at the beginning to touch in with the audience, nobody would have batted an eyelid. It's as much about fear of other people's discomfort as it is about your own. Fear that the actors are being put off, other audience members won't hear, and that, as in this case, the people making noise themselves are uncomfortable.*

Here an interesting point, and a question that always raises its head in discussions around Extra-Live, was brought up: What about audience attitudes that are potentially linked to disrespect, such as heckling, using phones and crackling sweet and crisp packets. There was also the simple question raised: is there something wrong with wanting a silent audience in the dark sometimes.

Some of the responses to this have already been covered above - I personally still think there is a lot to be said for having introduced the fact that the company and theatre don't mind if this noise is made, which can have a double effect - a) people may find themselves less pissed off by these distractions, and b) you might find this attitude lessens the disrespect shown by audiences (who are likely to be responding to being bored or are rebelling against the rules, right?). My company only has extra-live performances and they are frequently completely silent - I sort of feel this is respect you can earn by respecting the audience first. Furthermore, I used to find phones annoying until I decided not to and now I don't (there is a major cultural aspect here - in East Asia for example, having your phone out and filming is de rigueur). There are so many things we suspend when we come into a theatre, so many aspects we accept because they are culturally inherited as the rules of theatre - these things are changeable, and can happen very quickly. One member of the group brought up (a bit later in the conversation) a little pearl of wisdom from Seneca - anger is a philosophical state of mind produced by optimism. Ultimately it's a matter of expectations and having them managed by the theatre, company, performers and front of house staff.

But most importantly, I think that if certain noises and behaviours are really going to mess with your show, that can be part of the tailor-made permission given out at the specific event.

One member of the group brought up an example where three blokes were shouting misogynist abuse at the performers. Now what happened here is that she got up and told them to stop. And in a way that's sort of the epitome of extra-live. And I kind of wish all shows, even the most fourth wall ones, could somehow find there own ways in which to embrace this kind of surprise. I had a great experience at Tree, by Daniel Kitson, where a newborn baby was in the audience. Kitson quickly identified the wailing as belonging to his next door neighbours, and immediately the crying was sound design, and part of the show. Fourth wall intact. Audience beaming. Boom.

There is something very special about the feeling that you have experienced something unique at the night you have attended an event - this links directly with Chris Goode's ‘Cat Test’ - he states that theatre is only live if a cat could wander on from the wings and be accepted into the piece by both the performers and the audience. This strikes us as exactly what can keep theatre competing with other storytelling mediums like film and TV.

After all, the history of theatre is about people getting together in a communal experience, and in ancient traditional forms the audiences would frequently have known the performers personally or as members of the community.

We talked about how this feeling was present in the old repertory system, where there was a degree of loyalty to the performers at your local rep. Perhaps the ‘named actor’ model we have today is in some way related to this - as Rhys pointed out, it can be quite a big thing to sit through a play, and this shouldn't be underestimated. It was pointed out that we can sit through 3 hours of cinema without hesitation, but a 3 hour play feels like an epic undertaking. Perhaps this is partly down to the fact that you're having to actively choose where to focus, supplied with only one wide-angle view on the proceedings, as it were. But perhaps this is also a matter of seriousness, and due to the fact that tension is often built over long periods, and there is never a feeling of being allowed to relax (*it's worth saying that it seems the group was referring to a very specific form of naturalistic, fourth wall, serious theatre here*).

With that in mind, the group discussed that audiences want to feel a certain level of reassurance if they're going to give their time and money over to a production. Perhaps in a sense ‘named’ actors have become something of a solution to this problem - they provide a guarantee of sorts to a theatregoer. And this line of questioning brought us slap bang to the heart of the open space question - how do we work together to help keep regional theatre alive?

There is a generally held assumption that wherever the theatre is based, named actors are a big key to audience numbers, and of course there is a certain degree of truth to this. But here Rhys detailed the way in which Hertford have evolved their Christmas show over the last few years. He boldly decided that he was going to rid himself of the need for tv names in order to sell the christmas show, instead investing in quality of script, production budget and uniqueness of experience. As might be expected, this resulted in a significant drop in sales in the first year, but they have seen a 20% increase year on year, now that the loyal audience has begun to accept and look forward to a different communal experience. It is our feeling that the Extra-Live movement provides part of a foundation for building this kind of confidence and loyalty in audiences for the theatres that choose to subscribe to its precepts.

It was fascinatingly raised that there is a fundamental problem with funding structures when it comes down to this kind of action. Because of the 3-year subsidised model, where it is expected that no money will be returned to the arts council by the portfolio organisation, it's impossible for longterm initiatives like this to be confidently followed, knowing that the risk factor isn't mitigated by a safety net of longterm commitment. The argument was put forward for a longer term ‘investment’ model, where grants are used in combination with loans, so that the arts council can support theatres in becoming more self-sufficient. IE - if you need to spend money to make money, this kind of seed-funding could boost the regional theatrical economy.

The conversation turned to Matt Trueman's lovely article ( comparing theatre fans to sports fans, which outlines a model where an audiences celebrates a company/theatre's successes and commiserates their failures, rather than judges a piece against some sense of a universal barometer of quality. It seems clear that if a regional theatre can engender this atmosphere within its loyal following, it will have gone a long way towards keeping itself alive - it seems that a lot of the tenets of Extra-Live could help this happen. Another member of the group pointed out that she goes with her kids to the Bikeshed theatre in Exeter almost weekly, because the atmosphere is great, the work is interesting, and even if it doesn't all work, she feels a vested loyalty in the building now - this all came out of one or two good experiences at the theatre (the first one was a Rhum & Clay show). All it takes is a couple of positive experiences in a building to create this relationship (sometimes only one). And it's surely crucial for regional theatres that positive experiences are ascribed to the building in general, rather than just to the specific play being watched. Otherwise such an experience might only succeed in making someone chase a favoured company from building to building (which is not to say that wouldn't be great too).

If the audience feels ownership over the building and work, only then the sports fan mentality can exist. The loyal Hertford audience has a stake in the Christmas show now. It was suggested that a way of creating this sense of ownership might include working with associate theatre companies beforehand, either through workshops, q and a's, open spaces or sessions at local schools and institutions. Or just through the general ambience in the building, and a sense that you as a single audience member have an impact on the building just by being there - which, I guess to round this thing off, is exactly the point of Extra-Live.