Theatres should be our new churches

Bedlam Theatre, a church that has been converted into a theatre. Photo: Nigel Chadwick
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This Christmas I spent a lot of time thinking about how similar churches and theatres are. Both have music, costumes, speeches, lighting effects, rituals and of course, cramped seats. Both are communal spaces where people come to meet and share stories.

The Ancient Greeks knew this of course, regularly combining theatre and religion, but in an increasingly secular society the gap between is now vast. Churches are feeling the pinch with the swelling congregational numbers on Christmas Day only highlighting their usually low attendance.

This is a sad thing, not for religious reasons but communal ones. Churches used to be socially vital to the communities they served. In their absence, we need to create social spaces for people to gather in and I think theatres are just the place.

As libraries and community centres are forced to shut their doors, a theatre is increasingly one of the last public spaces where people can meet under one roof. I’ve written about the importance of this before with relation to bars and front of house areas. I would reiterate that – and to this end hurrah that the Finborough bar is to reopen in February – but this is something different. This is not simply about creating an environment that will encourage such discussions but about curating and nurturing the social importance of it. In 2014, we need to turn theatres into secular churches.

[pullquote]I’d like to see more venues programming series of events that bring the outside world into theatres[/pullquote]

I’d like to see more venues programming series of events that bring the outside world into theatres – not just artistically-led platforms, but socially-led ones too.

This is already happening in a few places. The Royal Court’s The Big Idea series, which structures in time for specialist led discussions around the issues dealt with on stage (belief, death and greed) is one example. Another is the Albany’s Meet me at The Albany, a weekly event that’s “for anyone over 60 who’d like another place to call home”.

Here, artistic activities are combined with lunch and a chance to engage with friends – combating loneliness that has been proven to shorten life expectancy. This is socially led outreach work and it’s also about art, culture, theatre and community.

Of course, it’s not just restricted to buildings, it’s an ideas shift, as Stella Duffy puts brilliantly in her blog on her new project Fun Palaces 2014. Inspired by Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price’s original idea of a space that was a “laboratory of fun” and a “university of the streets”, Fun Palaces 2014 will be a weekend series of events and pop up spaces where the arts and sciences meet and – public spaces with community involvement, engagement and participation at their heart.

As public spaces are continually eroded, I think this is something that all theatres should be focussing on. As we all scrabble to create New Year’s resolutions, let’s make 2014 the year where theatre places itself centrally within social welfare.