Latitude lines

The Latitude Festival in Suffolk is fast becoming the place to showcase innovative theatre to a previously untapped audience – music fans and hardened gig goers. Alistair Smith went along to the four-day event at Henham Park is Southwold to see how the theatre companies are faring

Last weekend, by a lake whose banks were populated with multicoloured sheep, in a tent near the Suffolk coast, some of the most respected names in UK theatre assembled. The Royal Shakespeare Company was there, as were the National Theatre, Paines Plough, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Bush. A rostrum of new-writing talent that would make Edinburgh a little green with envy.

The Latitude Festival, now in its fourth year, is fast becoming one of the most important fixtures on the theatrical calendar. Over four days, there’s more than 40 hours of theatre in the event’s main performing arts tent, supplemented by an almost unimaginable amount of cabaret, comedy, dance, puppetry, knitting, juggling, beatboxing and installation art elsewhere. On the face of things, Latitude is a music festival, but there is so much else happening that it would be perfectly possible to pass the weekend without straying anywhere near a warbling pop star or guitar-strumming folk singer.

Around 25,000 people attend the event each day, paying for entry and then visiting whatever they want when they are inside the boundaries of the festival for no extra charge. It is a potentially huge, untapped audience for theatres companies – from the teenagers who have come for the music, to families on a weekend out. This year, even culture secretary Ben Bradshaw was in attendance.

As a new, captive market for audience development, it is unrivalled. Still, it is worth noting that nobody is going to get rich from taking a theatre show to Latitude.

There is no box office and, while companies are paid a fee to attend (and given free passes to the festival), it is more a case of covering costs than making a profit. Still, one might be tempted to think that it’s less of a risk than a month in Edinburgh. And, there is a much more realistic chance of reaching people who might not be your regular ticket buyers.

This all might explain why, looking through the line-up in the theatre tent, it is dominated by the subsidised sector.

While in the music arena the bands can command big fees for performing, in the theatre tent you’re better off treating it as an audience-development exercise. And this is precisely what the most savvy of the companies do, taking the opportunity to hand out flyers/programmes, plug their venue before the show and get people to sign up to mailing lists as they exit the arena.

Some shows attract bigger audiences than others, but, for example, the RSC’s late-night performance of Here Lies Mary Spindler – created specially for the festival – must have had something nearing 1,000 people crammed into and around the tent (as one audience member quipped, it was more like “the Bakerloo line in rush hour than a theatre”) while Sadler’s Wells presentation of Hofesh Shechter’s latest work, on a stage by the festival’s lake, attracted a similarly large crowd. Indeed, this year, the theatre tent has been enlarged and improved to meet demand – the seating has been raked and the capacity nearly doubled.

So, that’s why theatre companies should attend – but if you are going, what kind of show should you bring?

Judging from this year’s line-up, anything too wordy is a big mistake. Audiences at Latitude have not invested in the price of a theatre ticket and they vote with their feet. If you haven’t gripped them within the first 15 minutes, they’ll just get up and leave. This was the fate suffered by a handful of shows that depended too much on reported action – characters explaining to the audience what was happening on stage, rather than doing it. Even more than in a traditional space, the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ is crucial.

The most successful of the shows were created with a festival audience in mind – the RSC’s, the Bush’s, the Lyric Hammersmith’s. The only real exceptions to this rule were the English Touring Theatre’s production of Che Walker’s hugely entertaining new musical Been So Long which, thanks to its great funk/soul score and strong, clearly delineated storyline proved a perfect choice for the festival, and The Eternal Not, which was a short, but perfectly formed, dialogue-heavy drama.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that microphones are a must – the Mercury Theatre’s production of Catastrophic Sex Music could well have been an interesting piece of new writing, but with only two out of every three words audible, it was completely incomprehensible.

Festival audiences also like quirky. Away from the theatre tent, Faulty Optic performed its unique brand of puppetry to an audience sat cross-legged in the woods, while Bootworks’ TheBlackBox, an unnerving five-minute show for an audience of one, also proved an entertaining, if brief, diversion for the crowds.

Above all else, though, it is important to remember that the people you are playing to are not a traditional theatre audience and the rules of traditional theatre programming don’t necessarily apply. How popular your show is could simply come down to what other events it clashes with or what the weather is like outside the theatre tent.

One performance of political rap comedy The Rebel Cell was barely half full as it got started, then the heavens opened and the festival-goers couldn’t get into the theatre tent fast enough. The rain continued and everyone stayed throughout, rapturously receiving a show they might not otherwise have seen.

PICKS OF LATITUDE THEATRE TENT

The Eternal Not, National Theatre (Running time: 30mins)

Lucinda Coxon’s entertaining ‘sequel’ to All’s Well That Ends Well sees Bertram and Helena trapped in a desperately unhappy marriage, a couple of years after the conclusion to Shakespeare’s play. With the action shifted to the present day, Bertram has hired a company to help him disappear so he can escape the clutches of his ever-pursuing and increasingly unhinged wife, who has been pretending to be pregnant for the last two years just so that he can’t leave her. This gripping mini-play positively whips along and makes one long for a fuller version from Coxon – Antonia Kinlay’s turn as Helena is a highlight, as is a scene in which Bertram tries to explain his obsession with computer role-playing games.

Supernova, Lyric Hammersmith (Running time: 25mins)

Commissioned specially for Latitude, Supernova marks the first public offering from the Lyric Hammersmith’s new creative team – led by artistic director Sean Holmes and associate artist Simon Stephens, who has co-written this vignette with first-timer Tashan Cushnie. The subject, a pre-gig conversation between a drunken, has-been rocker and his young guitarist, who has just admitted he is a virgin – is perfectly tailored to a festival crowd. The Lyric also paid more attention to set design than most, with some dusty standing lamps and a battered table creating a very passable impression of a pub-cum-music venue. Ferdy Roberts’ turn as the aforementioned rock star is a standout.

Suddenlossofdignity.com, Bush Theatre (Running time: 1hr 10mins)

Part theatre, part sketch comedy. Four young actors perform dramatisations of embarrassing stories submitted by members of the public. These range from the hilarious – sexual mishaps, a secretive Westlife obsessive who keeps on mistakenly outing himself – to the touching – a woman who maps out her entire life in embarrassing episodes – to the shocking – a best man’s speech in which he reveals the groom raped his sister. The focus is generally very much on the jollity though and – thanks to the superb acting company (Hugh Skinner deserves a special mention) – it is undoubtedly the theatre tent’s audience favourite.

Here Lies Mary Spindler, Royal Shakespeare Company (Running time: 45mins)

Last year, the RSC brought zombies to Latitude, this year they’ve got witches. Learning from past experience, they’ve restricted this show to the inside of the theatre tent and it proves all the more effective for it. The ‘Suffolk Trial Society’ – a spoof created by the RSC – has discovered a number of witch graves in the Suffolk area near the Latitude site. The performance takes the form of a docu-drama re-enactment of the trials, with an introduction and commentary by a researcher from the STS. Slowly, however, as the talk progresses, things start to go wrong. A perfect, gory choice for a festival and its late-night slot, and a great example of subverting audience expectations.

The Rebel Cell, The Rebel Cell (Running time: 1hr)

Billed as “8 Mile meets 1984″, The Rebel Cell sounds like a pretty dodgy proposition on paper – hip-hop rap battles used to tell the tale of a dystopian future in which England is run by a fascist government and free speech is outlawed. However, with a healthy dose of audience interaction, a live DJ set and some intelligent writing and charismatic performance from rappers Dizraeli and Baba Brinkman, the show proves to be something of a surprise hit. There are also some great songs – the standout being a number about wanting to bomb the supermarket chain Tesco – “I say bomb, you say Tesco”.

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