How can theatres with a non-mainstream audience get critics through their doors? I’m paraphrasing a question asked by Rebecca Atkinson-Lord at the Young People in the Arts panel discussion entitled “Is the Critic Dead?” It’s been well over a week since the event where Rebecca asked one of the most important questions of the night, and it has stayed with me since.
The discussion lasted only an hour and fifteen minutes and while it raised some interesting points, it didn’t really get to the meat of the issue. Rebecca did.
Co-director with Rachel Briscoe at Oval House Theatre, her question relates to the audiences that attend theatres like hers where the majority of the audience represents a minority of the national population. Oval House Theatre consistently showcases important, well-produced shows relating to gay and lesbian theatre, women’s theatre and writings about Black and Asian audiences. Off West End Theatre Award winner Arinze Kene’s fantastic Estate Walls premiered there and the theatre’s international connections brought the hilarious and moving Mother/Son to our city. But like many theatres with non-mainstream audiences, they face the challenge of how to bring their shows into the wider discussion on theatre.
I think the first step is for critics and writers to acknowledge that the this kind of non-mainstream theatre is important to the mainstream or at least it should be. The concerns of minority audiences mirror the concerns of the mainstream, though perhaps in an unfamiliar way. Estate Walls for example, looked at uninspired teenagers and what becomes of them. The discussion following Mother/Son brought up issues of teaching sexual diversity in schools and the upcoming evening with Peter Tatchell will bring to light human rights issues and global politics.
While critics on the panel at the YPIA event like Matt Trueman and Lyn Gardner have done a great job in highlighting the fringe in general, the shows in theatres like Oval House are still repeatedly left out of mainstream discourse. The same fringe theatres like Battersea Arts Centre and Finborough crop up time and time again, and for good reason: they produce consistently good theatre. But how they can a venue like Oval House also be featured?
I think a better balance of fringe reviews and features is required in mainstream publications. The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida Theatre didn’t have to try to get the critics in. With a synopsis featuring a pretty blonde, drug addiction and the middle classes, the critics flew through the doors like moths to a flame. But would they take the same attitude to shows like the upcoming Pandora’s Box which explores a Nigerian mother’s choice to leave her son in a Lagos boarding school or return him to the harsh streets of London?
I hope that example doesn’t imply the matter is black and white, I acknowledge there are many grey areas. There is an urgent need for the less featured theatres to get organised, to send out informative and concise press releases with high quality images and offer up charismatic interviewees. And they need to do this consistently. During the YPIA event Mark Shenton mentioned the sheer volume of theatres in London there are to cover. He’s right, but let’s not cop out. If critics are not dead, if they really are alive and vital, they need to go to where the real stories are. They need to regularly cover the huge range of socio-political issues raised in theatres like Oval House before these shows hit the bigger theatres. And perhaps the newer/international shows should trump revivals? What are your thoughts?