For most theatres today, the holy grail is new audiences. In the honourable name of inclusivity and democracy, we’re all aiming to increase the range of people who can experience – and hopefully savour – the work on and off our stages through active participation – including watching a play.
For many a theatre, it’s fascinating to observe that the search has led to experimenting with space. Paines Plough’s Roundabout pod continues to reach parts of the country that many other arts organisations cannot; the Royal Exchange, Manchester is about to tour a similar modular venue throughout its region; and we in Chichester have just erected a Spiegeltent on our lawn.
The initiative grew out of conversations we were having about offering our audiences a different kind of experience: one that could offer an even more intimate encounter with the play and the performers. While the Minerva is the more compact of our two spaces, its dimensions and capacity allow for the epic as well as the intimate. And so, we opted for a tent with a seating capacity of 110 in order to mount a production of Roy Williams’ 2002 play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads.
There are plays that speak directly to a moment in history and there are those that continue to resonate way into the future. Williams’ play is in the latter category. It is shockingly prescient. Set in a south London pub during the last England qualifier match at the old Wembley Stadium, the play explores racism in all its guises. Williams’ characters argue about racial supremacy, nationalism (who has the most right to call themselves English?) and the use of language in public discourse. The events at the England versus Bulgaria match last week feel sickeningly present in the play, as do many of the comments made by the US president over the past year.
Designer Jo Scotcher transformed the interior of the tent into one of those classic scuzzy pubs we all love to hate, and Nicole Charles directed the action with an immense sense of verve and danger. Some of the audience sit at the bar or at pub tables. Whatever row they’re in (there are only three), they are eventually engulfed by the tensions, as windows are smashed by bricks and police sirens grow louder.
Reading the show reports each night is fascinating. Last week, one report noted that a group of men had approached the stage manager in the interval to convey how sad they felt that the kind of pubs they had frequented in their youth – family-owned, community-based pubs – were now extinct. Other audience members are unable to applaud immediately, needing time to digest the experience.
Following the run of the play, we have a season of cabaret, comedy and spoken word. Again, we’re testing the appetite for different kinds of theatre – and we’re looking forward to analysing the audience data at the end of this experiment.
Daniel Evans is artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre