Catherine Love on writing for the theatre audience
Theatre, says writer, performer and director Tim Crouch, is “a rare location for collective thinking”. Director Ellen McDougall expresses something similar: “theatre is one of…
Together. It seems like a simple word. Or it did. It’s at the core of how most of us understand theatre, I’d suggest. Theatre is a form of being together. Performers and spectators are together in the same space. Audience members seated (or stood or walking or dancing) alongside each other share a fleeting sense of togetherness. We’re all here and now, in the same place and time. Or we were.
Set a timer for 10 minutes. Write down your first responses to the following questions (don’t overthink it):
What does it mean to be together?
Do we have to be in the same physical space to be together?
Does togetherness mean something different to you now than it did before the coronavirus pandemic?
Try not to self-censor and try to keep writing without stopping.
Read what you’ve written. Have you surprised yourself? Are there any contradictions in your thinking about togetherness? Dig into those contradictions. It’s often in the contradictions that the most interesting ideas live.
Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiMX1_bE7U8
This is one of my favourite meditations on theatre and liveness. I hope you like it too. What does it bring up for you? Note down your immediate thoughts and responses.
Ben Duke and Lost Dog created In A Nutshell at a time when many theatres were still closed due to the pandemic and the idea of sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers felt suddenly alien. There’s a sense of melancholy throughout the video, but the experience of distance and isolation also offer an opportunity to reflect on the strangeness of theatre as a social ritual. Why do we do it?
After reading this paragraph, close your eyes. Imagine, like Duke does, a trip to the theatre. Picture it in as much minute, banal detail as you can, from the moment you step through the doors to the opening seconds of the performance.
Write down what you pictured. Which elements of this experience do you think need to be kept? Is there anything about the theatregoing ritual you imagined that you think should be ditched? At what points in your imaginary theatre trip did you notice a sense of togetherness – or, perhaps, a potential for togetherness?
Next, let’s start to think about what all of this might mean for how you work creatively. To begin, take a look at this workshop on form and the audience: https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/chris-thorpe-on-form-and-the-audience/
Chris Thorpe argues that writers should be considering the audience and the form of what they’re writing in tandem: “Since live communication with a specific group of individuals is what makes theatre unique, it seems strange to ignore the variety of potential dynamics that present themselves when more thought is given to exploring a give and take relationship.”
Choose a story. Any story. It could be the story of a play you’re currently working on; it could be a news story you read today; it could be a fairy tale. Now, think about all the different ways in which that story could be communicated to an audience. What happens to the story when you think about ways of more actively involving the audience in its telling? How might this influence your writing?
Now let’s consider some other ways in which your writing might respond to the togetherness of live theatre. Read this resource on writing for the theatre audience, which offers perspectives from a range of different playwrights: https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/catherine-love-on-writing-for-the-theatre-audience/
Which of these approaches speaks most to you? Take the ideas that you find helpful and think about how you might apply these to your own writing.
When thinking about togetherness, we might also need to think beyond the immediate moment of live performance. Theatre-maker Tassos Stevens has suggested that the experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it. There’s a sort of togetherness in all of this – a thinking and feeling alongside other people, even if you can’t see or hear them.
Think about your last trip to the theatre. When did you first hear about the show? How long were you thinking and talking about it afterwards? Who did you discuss it with? Identify the moments of togetherness. Did this piece of theatre bring you together with anyone you might not otherwise have spoken to? If so, how did it achieve that?
There are still more questions to ask about togetherness. For example, are we really together online? This question didn’t emerge for the first time when theatres were forced to close in March 2020. Back in 2013, I remember seeing parts of Quizoola 24, Forced Entertainment’s 24-hour durational, live-streamed question-and-answer show, and watching the parallel performance playing out among audience members on Twitter.
Were these tweeters experiencing a sense of togetherness? And was that sense of togetherness anything like the togetherness we feel as we sit side by side in the dark, watching performers who share the same air as us? Note down your thoughts.
I’d argue that making theatre online doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning togetherness. It remains to be seen whether the boom in virtual theatre experiences will continue now that theatre buildings are open again, but the pandemic has certainly forced artists to think more carefully about how to create performance for digital platforms. To explore this further, check out Swamp Motel founders Clem Garritty and Ollie Jones’s tips on how to make engaging, interactive theatre online: https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/draft-toolkit-series-2-swamp-motel-co-founders-and-creative-directors-clem-garritty-ollie-jones/
And take a look at the trailer for Swamp Motel’s online show Plymouth Point: https://vimeo.com/425484685
So far, this workshop has focused on the positive aspects of togetherness, whether in person or online. But theatre can also brilliantly weaponise togetherness.
If you can, look at the closing pages of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Fairview. This is a stunning example of how theatre can use its own mechanics of being together in a space to interrogate who is included and excluded from that sense of togetherness that those of us with various forms of privilege might take for granted. It’s a reminder that the idea of being together, especially being together in the theatre, is not necessarily neutral.
Who is ‘together’ in the theatre? Ask yourself this question. I mean, really ask yourself this question. What does the answer mean for how you as an artist make theatre?
OK, to finish, look back at your quick-fire responses to the first set of questions. Reflect on these thoughts. Have any of your responses changed?
As we tentatively return to that old, familiar form of togetherness in the theatre – rubbing shoulders, bumping knees, sharing the same space – I’ll leave you with theatre-maker Tim Crouch’s thoughts about how theatre might evolve out of the pandemic. When we spoke during last year’s lockdown, he suggested that “liveness will return – it will return more consciously”:
What kind of togetherness do you want to emerge from this extraordinary time?
Catherine Love is a freelance arts journalist, theatre critic and academic.
My journalism has been published in The Guardian, The Stage, Time Out, IdeasTap, UK Theatre Magazine (previously Prompt), The Space, WhatsOnStage and Fest Magazine. I am also a regular contributor to the TheatreVoice podcast.
I was one of the editors of Exeunt between 2012 and 2014, during which time I was responsible for commissioning and editing features. In April 2014 and April 2015 I was deputy editor of Noises Off, the in-house magazine of the National Student Drama Festival.
I completed my PhD in the Drama Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2018. You can find out more about my academic research and publications here. I have also worked as a part-time lecturer in the Department of Drama at the University of Manchester and the Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media Department at the University of York. You can read more about my teaching experience here.
In my capacity as a critic, I regularly speak on panels and run workshops for theatres including the National Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Royal Exchange Theatre, Theatre Royal Winchester, Salisbury Playhouse, Lighthouse Poole, London Bubble and Z-Arts.
Finally, I’ve worked on a few other projects within the theatre sector, which you can read about here.