How do you solve a problem like Maria? Are TV talent shows a valid way to cast theatre? 

Convener: Darren Abrahams

Participants: Dan Usztan, Ellie, Lyn, Claire, Mark Price, Catherine Eccles

The question was raised to inspire debate. Darren, the convener, had thought it was not a good way to cast theatre when he had posed the question, but due to the influence of several discussions during the weekend had changed his mind. Engaging the public and making them part of the process of theatre is a good thing.

The discussion began by wondering if this was a competition between the audience and professional casting directors. There was some question as to whether “Maria’ had been engineered. Had Connie Fisher been decided on early in the process and then had the audience been subtly influenced since then? Before the process began there was an alternate Maria – Emma Williams – who was due to play most of the shows.

The TV format was thought to allow for greater exposure to the industry and to be reigniting an interest in theatre. Ticket sales went mad when Sound of Music opened with £12 million worth of sales. Is it bringing new people to the theatre? We were unsure that people who went to see Sound of Music would necessarily go and see anything else.

We spoke about The Play’s the Thing. Despite the television coverage this did very little to keep the winning play running in the West End. It was thought to be much less good television. So does this kind of TV casting only really work for musicals?  Could you cast Hamlet this way, with a different soliloquy a week? We decided probably not. Commercial theatre is going to benefit far more because it taps into a commercial TV slot and they complement each other. Sonia Friedman wanted to benefit from the exposure of television but the content didn’t really capture the audience imagination. How do you solve a problem like maria? Was broadcast prime time Saturday viewing, in a slot already filled by shows like Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor, so it fit very conveniently into the same format. This only really works with musical numbers and comedy – they fit into the light entertainment bracket.

The question of reviewing and critics was raised. Did critics feel a pressure to review Sound of Music and Connie Fisher well in case they were seen as being out of touch with popular opinion?

There is another aspect of this type of casting that was seen as positive. Perhaps there were more people seen and considered for the role than would be possible with traditional methods of casting. Very few people would see the casting process and it would be in the hands of a much smaller group of people. Arguably there were ten careers made from the show rather than just one. Following on from this there is also the fact that many more people now know about the process of putting on a big show. In many ways it emphasises the level of skill needed to do a part like Maria in the West End. Like the opera version “Operatunity” it showed the general public that not just anyone can do this job.

TV and theatre were seen to be coming together to mutually make money. The BBC plugs Sound of Music a great deal – New Year’s Eve broadcast, Children in Need. More cynically is it simply the Reality TV format searching for the next subject. There are already planned versions for Grease and Joseph. Eventually people will get bored.

Do shows like this make people think “I can do that” in a positive way, or is it exploitative and humiliating like the trials for X Factor? Most people now only tune in for the embarrassing round of auditions and then tune out.

There was a thought that this is only helping commercial theatre that doesn’t really need any help. It is making people aware of something they are already aware of – big West End shows already have lots of publicity. Although perhaps not outside London, so this would be a good way of doing this. If it does help the show it may not be for a very long time as ticket sales for Sound Of Music are already falling, now that everyone who wanted to see the show on the back of the TV programme have seen it. Connie Fisher is yesterday’s news. How will she continue to develop a career once she leaves Sound of Music?

Much interest in theatre is generated by casting celebrities – Patrick Stewart in RSC’s Anthony and Cleopatra. This kind of TV talent show is a very cheap way of creating celebrities.

Conversation moved on to the democratisation of the arts through the internet – Youtube, Myspace, etc. There is a film doing its casting on the internet at the moment. Is this similar to Maria? Theatre needs to use these mediums to gather attention to itself. Should we don more pre-advertising the way that films do and other products do? People will always want to experience live performance.