If you want to have a professional career in theatre, it is vital to spend time in theatre. Paines Plough‘s James Grieve offers a selection of affordable options for those on a tight budget
A few months ago, on a podcast, I was asked: “What is your top tip for aspiring playwrights?” My response was: “See as much theatre as you can. You should be going to the theatre at least three times per week.” When it was released, the brilliant playwright Eve Nicol tweeted: “Trying to square an AD’s [artistic director] recommendation that I go to the theatre three times a week with my disposable income of £12.50.”
This prompted increasingly anguished replies as a range of theatremakers weighed in to denounce my insensitivity to their financial means. “This AD must be on crack, and wads of cash,” said one playwright, summing up the mood but, sadly, overestimating my financial situation. The conversation at one point questioned whether – even if it were affordable – the concept of going to the theatre three times per week was a good idea. Maybe it would stifle creative thought? Was there even enough good theatre in existence to make it desirable?
But I stand by what I said. And I don’t think it’s unrealistic.
Whenever I run workshops, I start by asking everyone what they’ve seen recently. I am astonished at how hard people find it to answer the question, and how little time people who want to have professional careers in theatre seem to actually spend in theatres.
Sometimes, this is not their fault. One drama school timetables its acting students until 8pm, so they can’t see any theatre even if they wanted to. But for those for whom this isn’t a problem, the go-to explanation is: “I can’t afford it.” However, I’m not convinced. I think maybe people just want to make their own theatre rather than watching theatre – and I believe that’s a real mistake.
How much time do professional footballers and managers spend watching other people play football? A lot, judging by their autobiographies and interviews. They watch football obsessively at all hours of the day and night, scrutinising players and tactics and formations to try to learn anything they can to improve their craft.
How often do athletes train? Six days a week, maybe seven. How regularly do professional musicians practise, and how much time do they spend listening to music? How much time do novelists spend reading? Is three times a week really too much to ask?
I’m a big believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that you need to devote 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ to become world class in any field. That’s three hours per day for nine years. Theatre is tricky to ‘practise’, because it’s hard to do on your own. But going to the theatre is practising. Watching theatre is working.
“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research,” said the playwright Wilson Mizner. Spot on. Almost everything I know about directing I worked out by watching theatre obsessively and stealing the best bits. I understand proscenium staging because I studied Howard Davies’ mastery of the Lyttelton, I know silence can speak louder than words from Katie Mitchell. As an actor, if you want to know how to play the Olivier, go and watch Rory Kinnear. If you want to be a better playwright, watch Coward, Rattigan, Pinter, Miller and Ibsen.
I saw 119 shows last year and 138 the year before, not even living up to my own three-times-per-week rule. But that doesn’t include my own shows or anything Paines Plough produced, which probably takes the total to more than 200. That still means I was watching theatre on just 55% of the days in the year. And it’s my full-time job. I daresay Mo Farah might think training 55% of the time is a pretty lazy return.
Before you howl in protest, I know there are many reasons why it might not be possible for everyone to see as much theatre as me. I’ve devoted my career to touring work to underserved parts of the country, so I know many people outside urban centres are lucky to see three shows a year, let alone each week. I know travelling can be prohibitive, as can time, parenthood or caring responsibilities. Of course, a literal three-times-per-week rule will be impossible for many people. But the principle is practising three times per week, and there are many other ways you can do this.
Make up your three times per week by reading plays free from your local library or online, or cheap from charity shops, or direct from Paines Plough or the Royal Court online bookshops. Listen to the rich output of the BBC Radio Drama department, free on the radio or iPlayer. Watch plays on National Theatre Live or Digital Theatre for free at the NT or Victoria and Albert Museum archives. Watch clips of Olivier and Gielgud on YouTube, watch top playwrights on TV: Press by Mike Bartlett, Wanderlust by Nick Payne and Killing Eve by Phoebe Waller-Bridge – all free on BBC iPlayer.
What if your disposable income is just £12.50? You can see opera at Covent Garden for £3, you can stand at the back of the Olivier for £5, and you can get a seat at Glasgow Citizens for 50p. There are tons of under-26 schemes that offer free or heavily discounted tickets. Many fringe venues do pay-what-you-can nights. Sign up to ‘secret’ clubs like the Audience Club for West End seats for as little as £1. Ask theatres to be on their fillers lists, work as an usher and get paid to see theatre.
Some of that is London-centric and it doesn’t take into account the costs of travel and ancillary expenditure around a night at the theatre, but it is illustrative that it can be done.
As Jim Jarmusch says: “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.”
Here are three different ways you can see three theatre shows in a week for less than £12.50. There are also many more: I’d be keen to hear your suggestions in the comments below.
• If you are under 25 in London: Donmar Warehouse Young+Free (free) + Almeida UNDER25 (£5) + National Theatre Entry Pass (£5) = £10.
• If you live in the North West: Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse (£5) + Home (£5) + the Lowry’s Pay What You Decide (£2.50) = £12.50.
• If you’re in the know: Secret standing tickets at a major new writing theatre (10p) + West End musical via an audience club (£1) + a press-night filler seat (free) = £1.10.