Our story this week, revealing the precipitous decline in children’s theatregoing in the past decade, is deeply worrying. That the rate of decline has sped up so dramatically in the last 12 months is even greater cause for concern.
School-age theatregoing is our single greatest audience development resource and is also crucial to developing the sector’s future workforce. If it continues to decline – and it looks like we will have soon moved rapidly from a situation where the vast majority of schoolchildren are visiting the theatre each year to one in which most are not – theatre faces a ticking time bomb.
The foreshocks of this earthquake are already being felt. In 2015, London’s Unicorn Theatre reported that school groups attending the venue had fallen by 6% in the previous year; this was echoed in May this year by Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre. Leading children’s author David Wood has warned this has resulted in visible changes in the make-up of audiences for children’s theatre, who are becoming more middle class. Meanwhile, we have all read the complaints about the decline of working-class actors. Could it also be affecting programming?
Also this week, Michael Billington claims there has been a decline in the standard of Shakespeare productions on stage during his time as the Guardian’s chief critic. Whether you agree with him or not, there has definitely been a noticeable shift in the style of presentation of Shakespeare in the past decade. I wonder how much this has to do with a diminishing demand from schools for the kind of Shakespeare that its defenders might describe as ‘text-based and rigourous’. That style owes much to the academic emphasis that has traditionally dominated Britain’s approach to its most famous playwright via the English curriculum.
Some might regard this as a silver lining, but while experimenting and pushing the boundaries of Shakespearean presentation can help open up these great works of art to larger audiences, it requires a certain level of understanding of the text – from the creative team and the audience – before you can really start to deconstruct or reconstruct it effectively.
If fewer children are exposed to Shakespeare on stage and demand continues to diminish, we’re only a few steps away from creating a generation of audiences and theatremakers who do not appreciate any form of Shakespeare – no matter how it is presented.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith