Universal theatrical entertainment: is it behind you?

Convener(s): Alyn Gwyndaf

Participants: Annette Mees, Tim Lenkiewicz, Charles Peattie, Chloe Preece, Sophie Austin, Laura Hooper

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Root implication in question is idea that panto is one of the few theatrical forms with a truly wide-ranging social appeal: can this show a way forward? But this is still universal only within a British context, in that particular conventions are understood and shows seen only with an audience background of this tradition, so not fully ‘universal’. 

Although reaching a much wider age group than other theatre, does panto suffer the ‘A-team’ syndrome, that it can be watched at an older age, but only with a sense of retrospective irony? Is this inherent in the form, or simply because part of the presumption is that it is often dramatically bad (although typically strong on the variety and entertainment front): the adult audience knows what will happen to Cinderella, but do they care (in the way they might in a dramatically engaging Romeo and Juliet)? If panto is many people’s first experience of theatre, and they are put off by it being done badly (in whatever aspect), is there therefore a case for public funding to ensure it becomes a more positive experience? 

Some degree of interactivity seems to be a key element of reaching a universal audience. Possibly allied to a sense the audience increasingly expect to own their entertainment choices. Maybe this is a symptom of increasingly individualistic society, but who also feel more individual empowerment: “I can do anything I want” attitude. On the one hand, this moves away from sense of theatre ‘experts’ setting the agenda (c.f. art training focusing on work in art’s historical context, rather than its audience); on the other it moves away from a sense of the communal, and the collective theatre experience. However, this assumption was questioned: some theatre may demand or invite more individual, reflective engagement; or, it may simply fail to engage everyone individually so no collective engagement ensues.

Tendency to individual choice leading to markets being fundamentally more niche-oriented than universal. Should theatre-makers simply recognise and cater to such niches, or is there value is trying to reach a widespread, diverse audience? But, the universal can still exist, witness the success of Doctor Who in reaching a universal TV audience. 

Is the audience fragmented in time as well as in space? Theatre that attracts parents and children can implant a good theatre experience (if done well), so those children then take their own when grown up. However, if the audience tendency is one of ‘what’s hot now?’ such continuity and sustainability through time may not be possible. 

Apart from the ‘communal experience’, another assumption of theatre that was questioned was the sense of ‘live-ness’. Although live in a literal sense, some performances may be totally life-less. Discussion of how a band can maintain that through years of working together to create a close working relationship, and comparison drawn with repertory companies that allow the ‘working organism’ (i.e. the company) to develop independently of any specific project.

Discussion took the idea of ‘universal’ more widely, whether it’s possible to have work that reaches audiences globally, irrespective of cultural background. This can be difficult: aside from obvious language barriers, conventions of physicality can also be culturally specific. What does appear to be universal is the idea that there are certain basic stories that recur in myth and culture around the world. Football, for example, has a global appeal: is this possibly because it is, in essence, fighting? Are the most universal stories also those of the most primitive human behaviours, such as fighting, love and sex? As drama begins to address issues of socialised, civilised humans, does this begin to draw on concepts that become more culturally specific, and start to drift away from the universal? Hollywood film productions, in chasing global markets, appear to have done just this, in paring and tweaking storylines to ensure the most common cultural appeal globally, possibly less as cultural imperialism and more as greater inclusivity (there is, after all, a great commercial motivation to achieve the most universal audience). Following this principle, we might think a show such as The Lion King to be one of possibly most universal appeal.

A key factor in the appeal of panto is its appeal across classes, which much theatre doesn’t. Led to the question of why or when the middle classes (i.e. the theatre community) started hating the middle classes. Possibly rooted in the emergence of the avant garde, and revolt against staid art, but with ultimate aim of aligning with the upper classes where best patronage lay. Also discussion of irony that much of theatre community thinks of itself as left-ish, when it is generally a pursuit motivated from self-interest, and operating in a fierce free market.

In practical terms, theatre has the potential to be universal, as long as its marketing actually targets a wider audience. Current marketing may be self-perpetuating in that it targets existing theatregoers. Theatres may programme shows for particular demographics, and producers aiming for those theatres need to deliver shows that address those demographics. For example, cinema-going is often seen as a date activity, but few theatre productions position themselves as such. Honourable mention to the account of going to see Closer as a first date!

The universal entertainment doesn’t necessarily need to be panto. Lewisham open air theatre used to attract large, mixed audiences, including small children, who can happily wander about the park or in performance space. Free entry could also help widen audiences, but not be enough in itself: some people might find this in itself a turn-off; in other cases, this would not be enough to overcome a poor show. Location too could be a factor, both in terms of accessibility and credibility.

No particular conclusion, but a useful discussion with a number of useful points raised and assumptions questioned.