Theatre fetishises the young. It craves young audiences and spends money trying to lure them in.
Does anyone recall A Night Less Ordinary, the government/Arts Council England scheme from a decade ago that tried to attract young people into the theatre by giving them free tickets? It was not a resounding success, and its clear lesson was that there are many barriers for young audiences besides ticket prices.
Youth is widely celebrated in the industry, particularly when it comes to directors and playwrights. Development opportunities still tend to be over-concentrated on those under 30, even those under 25. Somebody’s third or fourth play is not newsworthy, but a first play from a teenage playwright gets headlines.
Theatre often talks about the new and the young as if they are the same thing, which they are not. You can be an emerging writer or director in your 40s and 50s. I know somebody who has only recently dipped a toe into directing after raising a family.
But youth is an easier story to sell. There has barely been an interview with the Bush’s Lynette Linton without mention of the fact that she is not yet 30, as if that were the most interesting thing about her.
When Thea Sharrock became artistic director of Southwark Playhouse at 24, it was her age that made headlines. Sam Mendes was dubbed a ‘boy wonder’ for directing Judi Dench in The Cherry Orchard in the West End when he was, according to the press, barely out of short trousers. He was running the Donmar Warehouse at 27.
With this emphasis on youth, are we missing a trick about who has access to the profession?
Both Sharrock and Mendes’ come from a not-too distant era when the Oxbridge-to-theatre pipeline dominated the British industry, allowing an elite group to make connections and unlock opportunities. Many established artistic directors in theatre still benefit from their early privilege and it informs their attitudes to culture and the artistic and organisational decisions they make every day.
Fetishising the young plays to the idea that theatre is a race, a sprint rather than a marathon, and that you have a sell-by date, because there are always younger theatremakers snapping at your heels.
But with this emphasis on youth, are we missing a trick about who does and doesn’t have access to the profession and who can make theatre? I was struck by Sarah Frankcom’s comments in The Stage earlier this month when she pointed out that it isn’t easy to access training if you’re over 30. “It feels like our notion of when people are ready to train, and what the value of life experience brings, needs to be reappraised,” she wrote. Too right it does.
Frankcom, until recently artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, and now director of LAMDA, where she is looking to make drama training more relevant to a changing world and a changing theatre culture, probably knows this better than most. She was a teacher before she became a director, and therefore had a long stint in the real world.
Unlike many artistic directors, Hampstead’s Roxana Silbert didn’t train as a director until she was 30. Last month I interviewed Tarek Iskander, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, who had a long and successful career in the NHS and had barely set foot in theatre before his mid-30s, when he got involved through participation.
Iskander took a different and unusual route in and brings a wealth of management skills learned in the NHS. He has a lived experience. It often requires somebody from the outside to look in and see new ways of doing things.
Theatre may offer a window on the world. It has, as Suzanne Bell, who deservedly won the biennial Kenneth Tynan Award for excellence in dramaturgy, said: “An ability to take us out of our immediate experience, illuminating the truth of our, and other people’s, existence in new ways.”
But if it is peopled predominantly by those who have lived and breathed theatre for most of their adult lives, who have gone straight from university into the industry and known no other working life than the jobs taken to survive, it can be a very small world, a bubble. Rufus Norris acknowledged that point following the Brexit vote in 2016 when he said: “This has been a huge wake-up call for all of us to realise that half the country feels as if they have no voice.”
But maybe if there were more and different routes into the profession and a greater valuing of that experience, theatre would be a more representative place, less out of touch. At the moment, the message it often transmits is that if you don’t start your career aged 21 you will always be playing catch-up. But while Frankcom and Iskander are the exception not the rule, they remind us that late entry into theatre is possible.
Perhaps more might consider encouraging clearer pathways to late starters. It would be to theatre’s benefit.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner