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Lyn Gardner: Never forget that theatres can intimidate first-timers

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A few weeks ago, I was in Athens for the British Council. I had a ticket to see the Greek National Theatre’s staging of Timon of Athens, a production that couldn’t help but be read as a metaphor for the country’s relationship with the EU and the Greek financial crisis of the last decade.

I turned up at the theatre, an old cinema, in plenty of time, but while I could see there were plenty of people enjoying drinks in front of the theatre – people who I assumed were also going to the theatre – I simply couldn’t see a way in. I didn’t speak the language and I couldn’t read the signs, so I was at a bit of
a loss.

I waited around, thinking I would simply follow people when they headed to the auditorium, but as the minutes ticked by towards the 8.30pm start time and nobody looked like moving I began to panic. Was I in the wrong place? Why were there no bells announcing that the production was about to start?

Eventually I did what I should have done in the first place, asked and was directed (in perfect English) to a lift that took me to the auditorium. A few minutes after I took my seat there was a sudden influx of people. Clearly, unlike British theatregoers, Athenians like to take their places just before the show starts.

It made me realise how I, a seasoned theatre-goer in the UK, suddenly felt at a complete loss when faced with a theatre I didn’t know, people behaving in a pre-show fashion I didn’t recognise and not having the visual and aural clues I needed to guide me. I just didn’t know how things worked.

It made me think how going to the theatre must make many first-time theatregoers feel. If you are a regular theatregoer you start to lay claim to ownership of theatre spaces. You know their layouts and their quirks: the theatres that give out playing cards or laminated passes rather than tickets.

You see the front door of the theatre as an entrance enabling you to gain access. Even if you have never been to that particular theatre before, you know the entrance is likely to lead to a foyer where people will mingle. You will know there is likely to be a bar where you can get a drink, probably a cloakroom, definitely toilets (recognisable by the long queue). The entrance to the auditorium is likely to be well signed and you will be given warning when the performance is about to begin.

‘A theatre often feels like turning up at a holiday cottage where the owner hasn’t actually seen the layout of the kitchen through the eyes of somebody using it’

But what if you have never been to the theatre before? Could the entrance also be seen as a barrier that feels as if it is there to keep you out just as much to welcome you in? Once you get inside, how do you know what to do and where to go? It can make theatregoing feel as if it’s an exclusive club to which you don’t have the right membership, and one that is likely to fill you with rising panic, adding to the sense that you don’t belong there.

I quite understand why West End theatres feel the need to have bag searches, but they are often so cursory as to be useless. And while they might act as a way of making some theatregoers feel more secure, for others it is just another hurdle to surmount to even get inside a building.

It’s why the welcome that you receive at the theatre is so crucial. They are something theatres have to constantly rethink if they really want audiences, particularly new audiences, to feel at home. A theatre often feels like turning up at a holiday cottage where the owner hasn’t actually seen the layout of the kitchen through the eyes of somebody using it.

Unless people feel genuinely at home, they are never going to feel that theatre is for them and they have a right to be there. It is up to theatre to see the place and experience through the eyes of the first-time theatregoer. As my piece for The Stage earlier this year suggested, for many people, going to the theatre isn’t just about the show, it is about the entire experience  – from buying a ticket, to the cleanliness of the toilets, to how easy it is to get out at the end.

One of the fundamental differences between the subsidised sector and the commercial theatre is that the latter often completely loses interest in you and therefore the customer experience once you’ve bought your ticket. Cameron Macintosh’s theatres are the exception to this. But subsidised theatres have no excuse: they are funded with public money and they are public spaces and belong to all. So, they must bend over backwards to welcome all. Not just their regulars, but those who don’t feel part of the club.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage.
Read her latest column every Monday at thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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