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Richard Jordan: When it comes to powerful theatre it’s good to talk face-to-face

Once upon a time, before Twitter, the telephone was used as a tool to communicate joy. School Play at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton Once upon a time, before Twitter, the telephone was used as a tool to communicate joy. School Play at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“For show freaks, this has been a night unlike any other,” starts a particularly memorable paragraph in Ken Mandelbaum’s terrific book Not Since Carrie. “The kind for which they have waited a lifetime. They cannot wait to get home to call their friends and phone lines, particularly those on the West Side, will continue to stream for hours to come.”

I love that image – from the author’s gleeful description of the ill-fated musical’s first Broadway preview on April 28, 1988 – of New York theatre lovers rushing home to excitedly call their friends. It’s a description that embodies the time and feel of the city where it used to be said that even the cab drivers knew the Broadway weekly grosses.

Today, and largely because of social media, there are fewer phones ringing after first previews. But at one time, those late-night phone calls were a part of the thrill of theatregoing, with the caller vividly describing the show to eager friends on the other end of the line.

Besides reviews, direct conversations about a show – whether on the phone or in person – were often the only way most theatre experiences were shared. Regardless of whether the production was good or bad, there was a certain elation to those conversations – and arguably even afforded a greater curiosity to theatregoing.

Today, the joy of social media is the ability to find and connect with those who share the same interests, while, rather than conjuring up the look and feel of a show through elaborate description during a phone call, a quick search on Google will invariably return photos and wobbly smartphone footage of fragments of a production.

“I would put it among the greatest theatregoing experiences of my life. I couldn’t wait to talk to others about it.”

At stage doors, the selfie may have replaced autograph books, with pictures posted as a testament of having been there. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of excellent bloggers writing about theatre and a celebrity tweeting about a show can go viral in seconds.

Despite this, or maybe even because of it, has the intimacy of theatregoing changed? The Stage’s enjoyable and lively podcasts highlight the importance and enjoyment of theatrical discussion. However, are there fewer conversations between theatregoers about their experiences, or is it all told via a screen and a keyboard?

Look around at any interval today and you are more likely to see audience members glued to their phones until the lights dim for Act II, than engaging in conversation with the person sitting next to them.

There are plenty of chatrooms where you can talk online about theatre, but has this made the experience of theatregoing more insular? Has it led to less noisy direct and in-depth face-to-face conversation offline? And if so, does this cause theatre’s presence to diminish among the wider public who potentially are hearing less about the latest shows?

Theatre is a collective experience but you connect with shows in a uniquely personal way. Many factors can influence such a connection: when you see a production, or performance; the age you were; where it was and what was happening in your life at that time. Any or all of these elements coming together can have a great effect on you and make a long-lasting connection to a particular work.

Even going to see many shows, there will always be a production that simply blindsides you and for which no tweet or email can ever do justice – it’s greatness simply has to be talked through with others.

You know instantly when you experience this in the theatre – it will be a moment when both you and the work connect, taking it to another level. The feeling you get is a thrilling, electric combination of intoxication, emotion, immersion and excitement. Most glorious is when you know that what you have just experienced will stay with you forever. At the end of such a show you walk out floating on air, with a burning desire to talk to anyone and everyone about it.

I had that experience last week watching The Inheritance at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End. Matthew Lopez fearless and epic new play about acceptance and human kindness is not only necessary and urgent but a perfect example of playwriting, acting, direction and design that comes together seamlessly. I would go so far as to put it among the greatest theatregoing experiences of my life. And I couldn’t wait to talk to others about it.

I believe the sheer joy of these experiences cannot be truly summed up in any way other than through conversation – it’s vital we don’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face discussion. Because, just like when stories were shared around the campfire, recounting such theatre experiences out loud means they don’t just stay our own treasured memories. By doing that we keep these works alive, crucially, empowering others to discover them.

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