Theatres and theatremakers up and down the land are rightly fighting their corners at the moment against the threat of impending and/or actual cultural vandalism that is is seeing central and local government funding coming under threat as never before. But thanks to My Theatre Matters!, a campaign jointly created by The Stage together with TMA and Equity, audiences are being mobilised to express their direct concern, too.
It’s that sort of active participation in a local theatre’s life and future that will make politicians take notice just how much they really matter. And visiting two very disparate theatres on the weekend, I realised (not for the first time) just how integral and embedded a theatre can be in the life of its community — and promote real artistic surprises for audiences who intrinsically trust those theatres to deliver.
I wasn’t at either on a press night, but ‘normal’ civilian evenings, which can be instructive, too. Press nights are created for a mutual convenience, so that critics can more easily plan their lives and the creative teams can build their productions around a particular looming deadline for judgement; but of course, in a sense, any night that a curtain goes up should be a press night, as the vast majority of the audience will be getting their only experience of the show that night, so it must always be as good as it can be.
As a critic, too, sitting amongst ‘civilians’, you are able to better feel and read a house that isn’t necessarily packed with friends, family and other interested parties. Instead, here are people who’ve actively chosen to be here – and (mostly) paid for the privilege of doing so.
Chichester has long been a ‘destination’ theatre — the cathedral city only has a local population of around 24,000 people, hardly enough to sustain two theatres with a theatre season that runs for over six months of the year with some 1,500 to sell every night (and twice over on matinee days). But people travel from far and wide to support it.
This year, of course, the main house has been shut as it is being completely overhauled; but Chichester took the bold step of replacing it with a temporary tent, the Theatre in the Park, to house two mainstage shows while continuing a full producing programme in its studio Minerva, that tonight sees a new production of Another Country open at the latter while tomorrow The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui transfers from last year’s Minerva season to the West End’s Duchess.
And on Saturday afternoon I visited the Theatre in the Park to see its revival of Tim Firth’s play Neville’s Island – not a familiar title, like an Ayckbourn play (though it did originate under Ayckbourn’s watch at Scarborough back in 1992), but the large luxury tent was pretty packed, nonetheless. Here’s an audience who trust the artistic leadership to deliver shows they want to see. (And this was before any of them could have read reviews, either; it had only opened officially the night before, so they were yet to appear).
The restaurant at the Minerva was also packed between shows, too – even though Chichester itself has many other dining opportunities, the loyalty towards the theatre also extends to its own dining facilities. Proof, again, that this local theatre matters.
So, on an altogether different scale, is Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse. This fringe gem often programmes ‘popular’ musical theatre choices – this year’s Christmas musical will be Kiss Me, Kate and they began the summer by staging the fringe premiere of Avenue Q – which I know so well already that I don’t need to go there much. But currently they are offering a rare London revival for an original British musical When Midnight Strikes, originally premiered at the Finborough back in 2007, so I saw it on Friday.
It was very encouraging to see a loyal local audience turning out to see it in great numbers. Even though this production was brought in by an outside producer, they were able to capitalise on the theatre’s own following to reach an even wider audience than the one they were promoting themselves to. And both were rewarded with a powerful rendition of an original musical with its own distinctive voice and voices.