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Lyn Gardner: The play’s not the only thing – theatre tells our stories too

Curran’s lighting was a vital element of Constellations, a London Royal Court hit that transferred to the West End. Photo: Helen Maybanks Finding a ticket for Constellations in a coat pocket brought memories of the whole evening flooding back. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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I was clearing out some old coats the other day and in the lining of a pocket I found some loose change but also something far more treasured: a crumpled ticket for Nick Payne’s Constellations at the Duke of York’s Theatre for November 15, 2012. I was instantly cast back to that night at the theatre and Payne’s heartbreaking story about the infinite possibilities of our lives, the different things we might have done, the other loves we could have had.

But the ticket didn’t just remind me of the show I had loved. The sight of the ticket brought the entire evening flooding back: who I went with (my dad), some of the conversation we had afterwards (dad tried to explain string theory but we both ended up talking about my mum, at that point four years dead and the pain still raw), and even what we ate for dinner before the show (fish pie). I might never have remembered any of this detail without that ticket. It’s a reminder that when theatregoing is at the heart of an evening it provides the glue that makes other memories stick too.

This brings to mind that rather wonderful saying from interactive theatremakers Coney: “The show begins when you first hear about it and only finishes when you stop thinking and talking about it.” I might not have given Constellations much thought in recent years but holding the ticket made it flood back. In another seven years, something else may well remind me of it again and the gates of memory will once more swing open. As time goes by, I may no longer recall the detail, but I will remember something of how it made me feel.

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I love it when a show suddenly clutches at your heart years later because something suddenly reminds you of it. I like the fact that theatre remains ephemeral.

Increasingly, companies are documenting their own work and of course some shows are captured either by NT Live or Digital Theatre Plus. That’s very useful when for work or learning you need to be reminded of a production. But an old ticket for a long-ago show doesn’t just dredge the show from memory but the entire evening.

As I’ve suggested before, when writing about West End toilet provision or the nature of the welcome that a theatre gives, while a play may be the centrepiece of an evening it is by no means the only thing that counts. It’s not just the plays themselves that take root in your mind and heart: theatres become like old friends, the sites of a lifetime of experiences, some good some bad.

I first spoke to my future partner at the Donmar after I recognised him as the friend of a friend, although we would not formally meet until some months later. I parted with another friend permanently on the steps of London’s Royal Court during the interval of an Edward Bond play, our long-festering differences magnified by the drama. I heard of my mother’s death while queuing at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh to see Matthew Zajac’s The Tailor of Inverness in 2008. I never did get to see it, but noticing that it is just about to be revived on a Scottish tour brought a sudden pang.

‘An old ticket doesn’t just dredge the show from memory but the entire evening’

My life has been mapped by theatre as much as it has been by life events. The two entwine – sometimes the mapping is psychic and emotional and sometimes geographical. Much of my knowledge of London results from going to see plays in spaces both temporary and permanent. The Arcola has long since moved from its original location opposite a kebab shop, but a friend and I still go there occasionally and when we do, we raise the ghosts of all the plays we saw there together. Every time I walk into the Almeida auditorium (not the foyer, which has been substantially remodelled), I recall its early days when the theatre was so cold you could sometimes see your breath. I worked just across the road at City Limits and we regularly got free tickets.

It makes me think that it takes a long time for a theatre to become fully embedded into theatregoers’ lives. When venues move there may be gains – and potentially new audiences – but there can also be losses for loyal audience members for whom the space has become a significant part of their lives. This is not just because of the many memorable productions they have seen there, but because theatregoing is a social experience and something we do with friends, lovers and family.

We regularly celebrate the illustrious public histories of our theatres but for many of us they have unwritten secret histories too.

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

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