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Lyn Gardner: Theatre isn’t a medicine to force down – it doesn’t make you a better person

Les Miserables has a large fan base, which often draws otherwise non-theatregoing audiences. Photo: Michael Le Poer Trench/Cameron Mackintosh
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I have a friend who is a doctor. He seldom tells strangers what he does because too often they want to tell him about the rash they have on their leg. Tell people that you are a theatre critic and the worst they do is ask what show they should see when their mother/aunt/third cousin arrives from Nebraska next month. Who knows if great aunt Lucy will share my enthusiasm for live art and post-dramatic theatre. Maybe she is more of a Waitress kind of person.

Waitress review at Adelphi Theatre, London – ‘sweet as the best homemade pie’

But besides the fact that most people seem under the woeful misapprehension that the life of a theatre critic is glamorous (if only), there are two other things that often surprise me when I tell people what I do. The first is how many respond by saying: “I really must go to the theatre more often,” in the tones of guilty children who have been caught skiving off their homework. People don’t say: “I must go to the movies more often.” It’s as if somehow people think theatre will make them better people.

As François Matarasso has suggested in his brilliant book A Restless Art: “We have inherited from the Graeco-Roman world, via the Enlightenment, the belief that culture is a special path to intellectual, moral and spiritual maturity. That is the claim and promise of fine arts, so access to them is to be encouraged because of their improving potential.” I have been to the theatre up to six times a week almost every week over the last 30-odd years and I am still very much in need of improvement.

‘Who knows if great aunt Lucy will share my enthusiasm for live art and post-dramatic theatre’

But the other thing people say surprisingly often is how much they hate theatre and then proceed to regale me with the time they went to see Les Miserables in 1999 and how it bored the pants off them. Or how they once saw a Caryl Churchill play and they were puzzled by it. It’s as if on the basis of one show that wasn’t to their taste, they have written off an entire art form. I see lots of movies that are not to my taste, but it wouldn’t make me vow never to return to the cinema.

I have written before how those of us who have a huge enthusiasm for theatre sometimes fail to understand those who say it is not for them. And we fail to understand that the offer of free tickets is often one they find easy to resist. It’s not just price that is a turn-off with theatre but also the things that surround it: the fear of doing the wrong thing, the sense of not being part of the club.

I also believe theatre requires more of an investment emotionally and financially. We all know theatre tickets are expensive because live performance is expensive to stage, but I’m not sure the general public really understands that. And because it’s expensive when they do go it’s a special treat and there is a whole lot more riding on it. Much more than a trip to the cinema.

It doesn’t help that when so many theatres are uncomfortable places that make it hard to go to the toilet and turn getting an interval drink into a test of endurance. Of course, if the show is brilliant these things are easily glossed over. I suspect few women who go to see Emilia are overly exercised by the lack of ladies’ toilets at the Vaudeville (although now I come to think of it the lack may well be another symptom of the patriarchy the show rails against).

There is no easy way to solve any of these issues, but I think they play a role in how theatre is viewed more widely. I also wonder whether there is something else that comes into play with theatre to do with fandom. Concert tickets are hugely expensive, but people are already fans before they shell out £120 to see their favourite artist in concert. They already know the music and they love it and it predisposes them to have a good time. They are seriously invested before they step inside the venue for the gig.

The only time that happens in theatre is with musicals where people are fans of the music before the show is staged. Or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where many who book tickets will have read all the books and seen all the movies. Those who go to these shows are not just theatregoers, they are fans.

Of course, it’s hard to create fans around a new play by a relatively unknown writer with a non-starry cast. But I do wonder whether theatre is missing a trick and there might be ways through marketing and social media to introduce people to new shows and talent. Then fewer will think of theatregoing as though it is medicine to be forced down rather than a spoonful of sugar.

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

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