An Open Letter to Elizabeth Day

A response to Elizabeth Day’s column about theatre in this Sunday’s Observer.

Jamal Harewood’s ‘The Privileged’


Dear Elizabeth,

On Sunday you wrote a column about how much you dislike theatre. You called it a ‘stilted, overrated art form’ – calling it out for being long, overpriced and dated.

I think you’ve been going to the wrong theatres.

The theatre you talk about doesn’t look like the theatre that we at CPT, and many venues like ours, know, love, and nurture. Thousands of artists in the UK, many of them popular, acclaimed (and widely covered in the Guardian and Observer) make theatre that is exactly – and purposefully – the opposite of the artform you describe.

In your piece, you thank Lenny Henry for creating “a real, human moment amid an unconvincing make-believe”, when he forgot his lines in Educating Rita and responded honestly. Those of us who love theatre would argue that you’ve alighted on an example of exactly why our artform is so brilliant – because it is live. Shit happens, and theatre doesn’t – shouldn’t – pretend otherwise. What you experienced was a twist on theatre-maker Chris Goode’s The Cat Test: “The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’.”

In short: the best theatre can survive – even thrive – when the unexpected happens. I’d go further: the best theatre strives to make the unexpected happen, looks to capture and make a virtue of ‘liveness’. Yes, there remain many mainstream theatres where it’s mortifying if someone forgets a line. But there are many others where going off-script isn’t perceived as a failure: it can be the most thrilling reminder of exactly why we’re here.

Chris Goode’s own work (full disclosure – he’s our former Artistic Director) illustrates this principle better than anyone. In his recent piece Ponyboy Curtis at the Yard, no two nights were ever the same: at each gig, six performers played out a continually varying game, interacting differently every time. As Chris puts it: “Watch it knowing if there’s a bit you really love, and you come back another night, the bit you loved will be different. Watch it knowing that the whole unrepeatable show is burning up before your eyes.”

You write that “the vast majority of plays are distinctly average. They are fairly well written, fairly well acted and fairly well staged.” But – in the anything-goes world of indie theatre that we’d like to help you discover – many shows aren’t ‘written’ or ‘acted’ at all. Take Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged, recently part of our Sprint festivalIn a room without set or theatre lighting, the audience is confronted with a performer in a polar bear costume, and a set of instructions. That’s it. No script. No acting. No pretending we’re somewhere else. Just a charged, shocking encounter between an audience, a performer and a set of circumstances – the progress of which rests entirely on how the audience chooses to behave on the night.

You say the seats are uncomfortable – so how about trying a show where you don’t sit down at all? This summer, you could experience Absent, DreamThinkSpeak’s immersive installation at Shoreditch Town Hall, which you explore at your own pace. Or WalkieTalkies at the Olympic Park, which features (amongst other things) a performance for one, on a boat, in the dead of night, in the middle of the London Aquatics Centre.

We’re big fans of short plays too: at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, over 3,000 shows will be performed, the vast majority less than an hour long. The National Theatre of Scotland has made an artform of plays that are only five minutes. And if you’re worried about having time for dinner, what about a show where eating is part of the experience? At Bristol’s Mayfest recently, Pop Up Love Party included a seven-course, Michelin-starred menu, and Leo Burtin’s The Midnight Soup (at our theatre this autumn) is performed around a dining table, over a meal, for just twelve people.

We agree theatre tickets can be too expensive, but the average price is skewed by the big West End venues. There are plenty ways to see theatre for little, or nothing. At the Albany, Deptford you can see any show for £1; at the Arc, Stockton, you pay what you think the show is worth. At CPT our top ticket price is £12 – £3 less than going to the Curzon Cinema. Go to a show like Kaleider’s The Money, and you might even leave better off than you started.

What is it you like so much about cinema as opposed to theatre? You don’t say. I’d suggest there’s a similar amount of “bog standard dross to sift through” on the silver screen – and just as much brilliant work being made by artists kicking against the trappings of big-budget blockbusters. Cinema, like theatre, is an artform too big, too multi-faceted, to be dismissed in its entirety, without accounting for the huge diversity of expression it represents.

It’s easy to get to know the kind of theatre I’m talking about. You don’t need to wait for someone from the telly to forget their lines. You could visit our venue, The Yard, Shoreditch Town HallOvalhouse and Battersea Arts Centre – and that’s just London. Sign up to our mailing lists to see what we’re up to. Or you could read brilliant, outspoken, creative bloggers like Megan Vaughan, Maddy CostaAndrew Haydon, and the team at Exeunt.

Your column (and the many others like it) points at a serious issue facing theatre. Too many people feel that it’s exclusive. Too many have experiences in theatre that don’t resonate with their own lives. There is rightly an onus on theatres, especially the state-funded ones, to tackle this, and to ensure we create a theatre ecology representative of the country we live in.

But your article suggests you’ve had a very narrow experience of theatre.  Theatre can be all the things you say it’s not. That’s exactly why we love it.

Amber Massie-Blomfield