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The Green Room: Do you think theatre is too middle-class?

Shannon Kelly, Andrea Riseborough and Sara Stewart in The Pain and the Itch, directed by Dominic Cooke, at London’s Royal Court in 2007. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Shannon Kelly, Andrea Riseborough and Sara Stewart in The Pain and the Itch, directed by Dominic Cooke, at London’s Royal Court in 2007. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details...

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Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31 and has spent the past 10 years working as an actor in regional theatres, at the National, on radio, TV and film

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, RSC, in the West End and on the road

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is also a writer and street performer

Ros Clifford is 30. Currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Josie Woo is in her 30s. She has been acting since she was a teenager and has since worked extensively in theatre

 

John Look at the demographic of people in an audience and you will mostly see people who are not working-class. I think the main point is not so much that it’s too middle-class, but that it is not working-class enough.

Albert To answer the question: not in Rotherham it isn’t.

Annie I’d like to say no, but many theatregoers – and donations – come from the middle class. That has an impact on the work produced, especially in London.

Ros Agreed, though I think smaller venues like the Bush are getting the balance right.

Josie As a place where communities come together to share a story, share their reactions and contemplate the world around them, it absolutely should be for everyone.

Annie Many regional theatres are amazing at encouraging young audiences and getting schools in – sometimes free of charge – and therefore encouraging new audience members.

Albert Absolutely. Many of our large regional cities have done a brilliant job of demystifying theatre and making it more accessible with their fabulous outreach work. Daniel Evans did a brilliant job in Sheffield and it’s being continued by Robert Hasti: getting people from the city into their own theatre, and on stage as well.

Josie High ticket prices also limit who attends.

Annie Yes, but there are deals like Entry Pass.

John Generally, theatre is expensive. Middle-class people can afford to go to the theatre and producers feel they have to give them what they want – usually middle-class theatre shows. Producers are essentially worried about losing their audiences.

AlbertBig musicals have worked hard to get a wider demographic into theatre, but plays in the West End are still mainly the province of the chattering classes. I recently filmed a scene in a West End theatre for a new TV series set in the 1960s, and the audience assembled for the shoot was almost entirely white and very middle-class. I wonder if things have changed very much on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Gary Theatre is as middle-class as the national debate. If it strains not to be, it’ll be daft.

Josie What do you mean by the national debate, Gary?

Gary I mean that we live in a time when the huge middle-class controls the debate, whether that be in politics, journalism, the arts – anywhere. Forty years ago, ‘working-class theatre’ meant something because there was a dynamic working-class culture. Now there isn’t. Or, if there is, its voice will become heard inevitably. Theatre is just stories, and the best stories push through and are heard.

Josie In that case I would absolutely argue that it is too middle-class. Just because the middle class controls the debates – that’s not right and theatre shouldn’t follow that trend.

Gary But I don’t think class will be the new voice anyway. Minority groups are the most interesting challenge to the middle-class status quo now, I reckon.

Josie So minority groups can’t be middle-class?

Gary Virtually everyone is middle-class.

Josie I’m speechless.

Gary ‘Middle class’ isn’t about wealth, just as ‘working class’ wasn’t about poverty.

Jon Dominic Cooke famously said a few years back – I’m paraphrasing a little here – that he wanted plays about the middle classes at the Royal Court in London because that’s who would be seeing them.

Gary Cooke was being honest. Why patronise an audience?

Josie Yes, I actually liked what he did – it made for some uncomfortable nights, when the middle class had a mirror held up to them.

Jon I guess it’s also about lived experience. We don’t necessarily want comfortable, public school-educated graduates writing plays about what it’s like to be benefit-sanctioned. Or do we?

Gary Aren’t you describing an elite group distinct from the middle class there? Broadly speaking, very posh people?

Jon True, that was sloppy of me. Although when people talk about theatre being too middle class they tend to use Etonian actors as examples.

John When it comes to actors, it’s becoming clear that people from working-class backgrounds simply cannot afford the risk it takes to go into such a precarious business. Nor do they have the money for the extracurricular ‘training’ during school.

Josie To back to an earlier point above, the best stories aren’t the ones that push through because, who is in charge of commissioning and choosing which stories get told? I’m afraid the keyholders and literary managers of our producing companies aren’t the most diverse or bold group of individuals.

Annie Exactly Josie. There is a realisation at the moment that that is the case.

Josie It’s about ‘safety’. People feel ‘safe’ with what and who they know, so if they’re from a nice, middle-class background, they’ll tend to group with – and employ – similar people.

Gary I’ve been really heartened by how enthusiastic most people in theatre are about ‘the best stories’. I find it hard to believe that great working-class stories are being binned in favour of worse plays.

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