Friday Briefing: is theatre coverage in mainstream papers dwindling, and what's the point of season announcements?
This week, Mark Shenton ponders whether the lack of coverage in national newspapers disconnects theatre with its more casual audience, the positives and negatives of theatre's holding season announcements, and why one theatre took issue with an audience member wearing Anti-Brexit badge.
Does theatre coverage still exist in mainstream British newspapers?
Steve Rich, founder of the crowd-sourced online West End seating guide theatremonkey.com, recently found himself cut off from regular phone and internet service for a month, through no fault of his own - and made an interesting discovery, as he wrote here: "What it also meant was being pretty much cut off from the entire theatre world. Living day to day with various streams of theatre news, the latest happenings – every press night, new production or booking period announcement, and on to which actors went off sick at the interval, and which performances got cancelled half way through – provide a steady flow.
Guess how much of this stuff is in the offline mainstream printed press, television or even BBC "Red Button" information text? Yes, that’s right, absolutely nothing. For four days straight, not a word about theatre in any newspaper (except the Baz Bamigboye column each Friday in the Daily Mail, bless them). Otherwise, nothing."
It's true that a lot of specialist journalism has migrated online, to 'safe harbours' or 'gated communities' of people who share similar interests. Many of these are literally gated, placed behind paywalls, where only those who pay for them can access them. But the incentive to do so is because you already know it is content you want to have access to. The casually interested person - who might once have stumbled upon a theatre-related story or review as they read their daily newspaper - will be missing the chance to make that sort of discovery and engage with the theatre.
What's the point of a season announcement?
This week saw press conferences held at both the Donmar Warehouse (on Tuesday) and English National Opera (on Wednesday), to announce new seasons as well as broader audience and ticketing initiatives. And last week saw the National make a season announcement by e-mail that set off a social media firestorm when it was noticed that of the four new productions announced, all were by male playwrights.
What the latter did, of course, was provide only a small snapshot of a part of the theatre's advance programming - not, as ENO and the Donmar were able to do, to stretch to the year ahead. So it lacked necessary context, that might have explained where these four productions sat in the programming across the year. And as I wrote in my review of a new production of Caryl Churchill's 1982 play Top Girls that opened there this week: "This play about female aspiration, inspiration and work place achievement couldn't come a timelier moment to continue that conversation whilst also providing some redress to it. (Of course the announcement of a new booking period which ignited the furore is only a snapshot of a theatre's output for this particular time, not its entirety, but the protestors don't restrain or detain themselves by taking a longer view)."
But as Alistair Smith, editor of The Stage, pointed out in an editorial, "Season announcements are a hangover from the days when printed brochures dictated a theatre’s marketing strategy. Theatres revealed shows in batches to make the most of the limited opportunities they had to speak directly to their audiences en masse. Many continue this practice, despite brochures no longer holding the pre-eminence they once did. Season announcements aren’t to shift tickets: they are for stakeholders, funders and industry commentators. They help create the mood music against which an artistic director’s tenure plays out. When handled well, they reinforce an artistic leader’s vision and, when handled badly or not done at all, they can leave an impression of a rudderless organisation or, even worse, one failing in its declared mission."
At the Donmar, incoming artistic director Michael Longhurst and his new executive director Henny Finch were able to set out their stall for the sort of work they were going to promote, but also their plans to try bring in new audiences who might have been shut out by the fact that the theatre only seats 250 people and often sells out in advance. As reported here, Longhurst has selected five plays which he said were “truly astonishing plays that interrogate the world we live in today". He also declared his long affiliation and affection for it; "This is a theatre I’ve adored for years. I once even slept outside overnight to get a ticket. For me, the Donmar is a magical space designed to ignite theatrical fireworks; an intimate space in which to congregate and expand our horizons." Finch said of a new scheme to see 40 tickets - about 15% of the theatre's capacity - that it was aimed at making sure tickets can be made "continuously accessible".
English National Opera, meanwhile, announced a season in which not only do women make up the majority of directors of new productions for the first time, but also plans to introduce earlier starting times for some performances and make more tickets available for free to younger operagoers.
All of these were positive messages, brilliantly reinforced by their press conferences. The National, by comparison, opened themselves up to (not necessarily deserved) criticism.
Anti-Brexit protest badge causes problems for a theatregoer
While the machinations of the British parliamentary process are providing daily dramas of their own as the country's elected rulers try to navigate around the mess they've so far made of the process, it might just be time for Jenna to bake a pie in the London transfer of Waitress to put it all straight again... or at least provide some comfort food.
But it turns out that staff at the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand have inserted themselves right into the middle of the political debate. A mother and her daughter, who last Saturday took part in the massive march through Central London in support of the European Union, went on that evening to see Waitress - and a front-of-house staff member refused them admission unless the mother removed a small “Forever EUropean” lapel badge featuring the EU stars in the shape of a heart.
The affected theatregoer Vicki Elcoate was reported in The Guardian saying, “Having been on the happy, peaceful march, I simply couldn’t believe it when this officious man refused to let us in. It was just a small badge, but he insisted the theatre had banned all political slogans. A huge queue built up behind me as we argued, and it all got rather embarrassing.”
A spokeswoman for the theatre, jointly owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Broadway's Nederlander Organisation, commented, "The Brexit march was an exceptional day. We hosted many guests with political slogans from both sides of the debate, and we felt the safest and most sensible thing to do was to keep the venue politically neutral. Our team’s aim was to implement this admissions policy both fairly and consistently. We never want to cause offence and we’re sorry it did on this occasion."
Photo credit: morganmorgan (flickr)