For the most part, working class kids have one major experience with the live theatre method of artistry – pantomime. Every Christmas, primary school classes are rounded on to buses and taken to the nearest theatre to see Jack and the Beanstalk performed by people you may have seen on telly on some repeated TV show. It is an event, a once-a-year thing, and it is all a bit silly.
The only other time these same kids are encouraged to go to the theatre, or may be taken to it, is when studying a play in English class that has a nearby performance. Analysing hysteria in The Crucible? That’s handy, a local college drama group are working on that! We can go see how they portray a witch-hunt by comparison to how we as a class see it!
By the time they have written their essay, in their minds theatre is for one of two things – Christmas foolishness, or academic research.
A question of exclusion
Working class folk are no strangers to the arts. It is not only the affluent who pack out cinema screens and concert venues – these forms of expression, for the most part, cut across all sections of society. There may be a question of division when it comes to arthouse cinemas and certain genres of music, but overall, the working class engages with and consumes film and music regularly.
So what is it about theatre that seems so exclusionary? If the first experience most people have of theatre is the flowery language of Shakespeare, now considered middle class despite not appealing to any class in particular during his time, what is there to say to kids “you are welcome here too?”
Not just about the cost
There are always incentives. The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where many big names have performed such as Alan Rickman and Mark Rylance, is based in one of the less affluent areas of the city, and rather than cause gentrification, it lowers its prices for residents of the area so they can engage with what is going on there.
There are more problems than just ticket prices but with London’s West End offering lower priced tickets for big shows at £40, it is certainly a factor.
Maybe it is the lack of effort by the performance industry to bridge the gap. In the 1970s, a play by Liverpudlian playwright John McGrath called The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil toured Scotland, visiting many locations in the north, often untouched by music tours, and plenty of working class towns, performing in community centres rather than lavish theatres. It was well attended, thanks to word of mouth about its accessibility, and because it made an effort to come to those communities and tell them that they were welcome.
It is frustrating. Earlier this year I saw a play by Andy McGregor called Love 2.0. It took place in a very small space, in front of fifty people per performance. It was a comedy about dating in the modern era and how social networking and technology complicates everything. It was hilarious, funnier than most tours by comedians that sell out arenas for nights in a row.
It was accessible, because people from all walks of life have these same dilemmas of wondering why it is taking so long for someone to write back to something you said on Facebook chat. And yet, because it was theatre, it was a passing moment that will not be seen again, even though if people knew about it, gave it a chance, they would love it.
The onus is on the arts to get out there and say that it is for everyone. It can only be a good thing. In areas of high deprivation, theatre classes and performances can help people express themselves in a healthy manner. At the moment not enough is being done. But, it is for you, no matter who you are.
If you like going to the cinema, if you like the feeling of live music, then you are guaranteed to find the theatre equally as rewarding – it is just a shame that it does not spend as much time as those other mediums telling you so.
What do you think? How should the theatre be made more accessible? Have your say in the comments section below.