Live Theatre Broadcasts – As Good as the Real Thing?

Ben Huxley

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

After a successful run on Broadway, Sean Mathias’ production of Pinter’s No Man’s Land is finishing its UK tour on the West End this month. The real selling point is its stars – Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, so I’m surprised it hasn’t sold out yet. It will soon, however, and there’ll be a lot of disappointments. But this isn’t the reason I won’t be seeing it; if I lived in London, or any of the cities on the tour, I’d have bought my ticket quite some time ago. That’s the difficulty of living, as people tend to say, in the middle of nowhere. This is the epitome of a first world problem, however – especially when we can view it by other means.  

The somewhat inevitable heroes coming to our rescue are film crews. In the UK we have National Theatre Live, who broadcast theatre performances in cinemas across the country. Sometimes it’s live, occasionally we see a recording a couple of weeks after. No Man’s Land will be screened at my local cinema, which is conveniently a twenty minute walk from my home. 

A live screening has two directors; stage and cinematic. The cinematic director ultimately decides how we watch the play, which, for me, is the biggest disadvantage. With the close ups of actors faces, we aren’t allowed to let our eyes roam the stage. A lot of the time it isn’t the actor delivering the line that’s important, but the reactions of other cast members. 
Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet was an odd one; the whole thing was shot in black and white. Branagh has stated that this was due to the production’s Italian film noir influence, which was evident enough with the costumes and set. 

So most of the time the screenings aren’t providing us with a virtual-theatre experience; it’s more of a live film. Perhaps this is just as well – it’s impossible to replicate the atmosphere of the theatre in a cinema. A single shot of the stage from the back of the theatre without any zooms would be, let’s face it, theatre without the atmosphere. That’s not to say that the atmosphere is there with camera zooms – but something else is. 

Although the performers aren’t acting for screen, we see something interestingly candid in a close up of their face. In Anna D Shapiro’s production of Of Mice and Men, those sitting at the back of the theatre wouldn’t have been able to see James Franco and Chris O’Dowd’s eyes welling up in the final scene. In the screening of Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre, we saw the innocent and terror-ridden expressions on Madeleine Worral’s face filling our 10x30 foot cinema screens. 

So watching what I’ll call a “film version” of a stage performance isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s a taster of live theatre, with a bit of Hollywood thrown in. Also, I’ve heard arguments that it’ll somehow stop people from going to the real thing – but this is rubbish. I don’t see how broadcasting quality theatre to corners of the country where people are rarely exposed to it can be a bad thing. 

Amateur Musical Theatre: A Singing Teacher's Role

Laura Dumbleton

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

Imagine: You're a singer, and you've landed yourself a role in an amateur musical production. You've had singing lessons leading up to the auditions, learning how to sing those 16 bars in character and honing your technique to a point where it's second nature to you. Then you've gone to the audition, nailed it, got through to call backs and eventually were offered your part. Hooray! 

Yes, this means you have to do character research and you have to put this into action when you rehearse your role. The director will give you notes on your performance, and some pointers on your character development as the rehearsals progress. At every rehearsal, you feel like you're getting into character faster and for longer periods of time. 

But then comes the clincher. Can you stay in character when you sing? Sometimes, your director hasn't got a clue how to help you. The musical director can usually give you some pointers, but nobody really has the time to dedicate one on one with you because they have a whole cast to help out. So, you go back to your singing teacher. 

Your singing teacher will know how to help you with your song, from character development to the way you sing certain words. They'll understand that the role is to be played a certain way and they'll work with the notes you were given. They'll be your mirror, showing you what was great and what could be done better. They'll become invested in this role, nearly as much as you have, because they want you to succeed.

After months of lessons, rehearsals, panic moments and  cancelled social events, it's finally Show Week. You're ready, you're in character and you have a full house. You go out there and you give it your all and love every minute of it. Your audience will get lost in the story and enjoy watching it, and then they'll most likely go home and think about something else.

However, some audience members, especially your singing teacher, will get lost in the story but they'll also notice everything. From the way you hold your posture, to where your microphone is positioned, to the tone of that belted note when it comes out of you and what the rest of the cast is doing too.

But why wouldn't they? They've worked almost as hard as you have on that song, they've helped you learn it, put little adjustments in place to help you with your diction and breathing, and showed you how to get that belted note perfect. Not to mention tailoring your lessons to help you grow your voice under the demands of the role, and thinking about how they can best help you when they wake up at 3am worrying about you.

Every audience is invested in you, they want to see you soar in your role and succeed in your goal. But, your teacher, knowing how hard you've worked, will really be rooting for you, especially when that hard bit comes up. And when you nail it, they'll be the ones sitting with silent tears running down their cheeks with pride at what you've just achieved. They'll even earn the concerned looks of their neighbors who won't really get what they're crying about, but they won't care. You just made them proud of you. 

They might even go home and write you some notes for the following night's performance. They'll drop you a text or an email saying how much you've proved to yourself that you can do it, how proud they are of you, and here's something that might help you be even better at what you just did. 

Don't get me wrong, they'll also pick up on things in the show that aren't quite right, or know that someone else in the company needs some vocal help  to reach that high note. 

Because that's what we do. We're never off duty, not really. But do you know what? 

We love it!

The Stage Door: What's a Girl to Do?

Elizabeth Collins

  • United Kingdom Columnist

It's always a tense moment, leaving the theatre and passing the stage door. You've seen something not just great, but something brilliant, something sublime and incredibly affecting, and you want to direct those feelings towards those deserving of them; the cast who evoked them in the first place. Countless times I've wanted to stop and wait to greet the cast after a great performance, to tell them with actual words what my clapping in the auditorium stood for. Countless times I've hesitated with a friend, we've hurriedly discussed it and then wandered away. Once we even waited for ten awkward, clueless minutes, then realised that we had no idea about whether actors tend to make an appearance after matinees as well as evenings, or indeed, how long it generally takes for a de-costumed, civilian-once-more person to make their way out of the theatre. So I've never actually braved the stage door and I've never met a single stage hero of mine...

There's a self-consciousness about that wait which can't be denied. What exactly do we say to the talented bunch emerging when they're likely just searching for the Lucozade drip before round two of the evening performance? What are the etiquette rules for said greetings? Is it not all a little cheeky, asking for even more from the cast when they've clearly just given their all already? I see crowds clamouring for selfies when I pass other theatres on the way home, but do they say anything? How do the actors feel about it all? I'm not entirely convinced that it's a pleasure for them after eight shows each week- they deserve to make a speedy exit if they so wish, surely! I do wonder if there are some sort of agreed times, days and expectations on both sides that I'm simply unaware of? 

On the flip side, West End actors (and all actors, for that matter) work damn hard. They work anti-social hours and they deserve kind words for each of those things, in addition to their performance on stage. So what if everyone thought like me? What if the hard-working, talented folk heading home for the night after a grueling few hours would like to hear a few words of appreciation for their efforts, and folks like me were too shy to stay and say them? I hear tales of some actors being grizzly, but how much is to be believed? I'm certain that I don't want to be the one to irk the actor I'm trying to praise! Perhaps what I need is a seasoned  stage door veteran to tell a girl what to do, or perhaps waiting at the stage door simply isn't for the likes of me!

So I remain torn. I want to say wonderful things, so I do so in my reviews, tagging them on Twitter in the off chance that they might see it as they scroll through on the tube ride home. But I'm a little fish in a very big pond, so the well-deserved praise in my reviews more often than not goes unseen by the actors themselves.

Just once though, I'd like to be resolute enough to stand, wait and deliver my thanks in person. Maybe one day...just maybe.

Merchandise: Am I a Mug Among Many, or a Mug Alone?

Elizabeth Collins

  • United Kingdom Columnist

It started with programmes. Then it progressed to tote bags, then magnets/ badges, then cast albums, then all four, and now it's mugs (and programmes...and cast albums...obviously). But am I a mug alone, or a mug among many when it comes to theatre merchandise? I realise that lots of people swiftly pass by when they reach the merch stand; prices are steep and getting steeper, whether at the theatre or at gigs/ concerts. I'm a sucker though, and a merch stand is something that I always have to have a snoop at; inevitably coming away with some sort of souvenir. 

Many people settle for a programme and nothing more. I have three huge storage boxes crammed with programmes, and in defiance of the naysayers who opined 'why bother? You won't look at them again', every so often, I sit down and flip through a few of them, enjoying looking at the show-stopping moments captured in the pages. 

Cast albums are kept in the car, and as mentioned in previous posts, they are unfailingly great at making long drives bearable and helping me to entertain the people around me while I tunelessly belt out my special rendition of 'Someday' from 'Memphis'. Likewise, a cast album can lead to a great sing-along with friends on any given road trip- and who would ever pass up that kind of opportunity?

I use various tote bags for work, the current one being from the recent West End production of 'Funny Girl'; it's nice to carry around a memento from a great night out rather than grabbing the local supermarket's latest bag for life. Although tote bags are fine for a while, you never use a tote bag as much as you think you will, especially if you keep getting a new one after each show you see! I have no more space or need for tote bags, but if I see a show I love and there is no mug available, I'll settle for a tote bag rather than nothing (ahem, Kneehigh, I'm looking at you- no Kneehigh mug? Really?!) I do still pick up the odd magnet, but to be honest, I'm running out of space, and at some point I'll have to adopt a more grown-up looking kitchen...

So, I'm now a mug for mugs. My kitchen cupboard is full of theatre/concert/gig mugs. They're a perfect merch choice; used all day long in an English household, which stereo-typically inhales tea on an hourly basis. So why so much love for (admittedly, often over-priced) mugs and the like? Well, because I love catching sight of the show name or image emblazoned across that mug, and it makes me smile. If it catches my eye on a bad day, it does, cheesily, lift my mood a little. It might plant the seed of a jaunty eponymous ditty in my head to help me cope with a horribly early morning; leaving me groggily humming a tune instead of just shivering and scowling. It might prompt a great conversation when handed to a guest during a long- awaited catch-up; or the friend who was there for that show can enjoy reminiscing with you. If I'm having a lonesome cuppa, I might indulge in an extended trip down memory lane- which might even progress to popping the cast album on; it's all about re-living the joy of seeing that show. Sure, I'd think about them at some point, but probably not so much without the help of my kitchen cupboard contents!

I think we need our memories of great theatre to last. Theatre is so expensive these days, and West End shows pretty much always make me leave vowing to return; then my bank cards shrieks 'NO!' at me and I'm left with just memories... So for me, the mugs and all the rest of it keep the memories alive when I can't return to a show, or even see anything new. Plus, what about when I'm a octogenarian and getting a bit dotty, with a failing memory? 'Well you must have seen Phantom of the Opera, Granny, look, you've got the mug'...'oh yes dear, I remember now; I remember a wonderfully gothic river set...' Cue Streisand, 'Mem'ries...' and...perfection!

So, back to the question then: am I a mug alone or a mug among many when it comes to theatre merchandise?

An Apology to the World of Musical Theatre

Elizabeth Collins

  • United Kingdom Columnist

I denied it for years. 'No no no, I do see some musicals, yes- but mostly I see dramas and comedies- big musicals are too cheesy!' But yet- I went to so many musical shows and thoroughly enjoyed them. I went to many musical shows and felt happier for it. I went to musical shows and was moved to tears. I struggle to pin down the exact reason for my denial which lasted for years but I am now cured of that denial, and I make this apology to the world of musical theatre.

So, what were the possible reasons on offer? Maybe I thought people might not see me as seriously as I liked (being a teacher makes this quite an important impression to have)! Perhaps it was a genuine dislike of some of the cheesiest moments in the musicals I saw early on (no names). Perchance it was the cynicism of my partners in conversation- that raised eyebrow of judgement which so often appears when talk of musical theatre arrives into the lives of non-fans.

Luckily, I now feel none of that eagerness to fit in with the opinions of others or indeed, to be so uptight about how I appear to others- could it be that the messages in so many of the musicals that I have seen have influenced me so successfully? It seems likely. So slowly the realisation crept in...if I wasn't such a big fan of musicals, why was I paying small fortunes to see so many of them and why did I keep going back for more? I was a fool, of course- I am completely in love with musical theatre and I now own that love and proudly sing the praises of some of the best shows I've ever seen- many of which are, in actual fact, of course, musicals...

So for the record (and to redeem myself), let me specify the jewels in the crown of musical theatre. I love musicals for their joy, their tragedy, and their ability to lift you out of your own world and plant you into a grand, colorful and often majestic set with fabulous, jaw-dropping costumes and voices which make both the rafters and my heartstrings ring. Musicals time and again showcase the extraordinary capabilities of modern productions and the results are often incredibly moving-whether to laughter or tears, the often heightened, affecting nature of the gem cannot be denied. Musicals carry powerful messages and often provide important social commentary- 'Wicked', 'Memphis', 'The Color Purple' and 'Priscilla: Queen of the Desert' are prime examples. 

Musicals are powerful in ways which dramas and comedies struggle to rival; the medium of song seems to elevate every type of emotion and the quality of the music and the voices make musical theatre some of the most striking and memorable of all productions on stage. I love musical theatre for the very things I once offered as reasons for dislike- the jazz-hands, the over the top characters and yes, even the cheese; let's face it, sometimes cheese is needed! Musical theatre is fun, it is joyous and it is beautifully enveloping; it's a sure-fire way to lift a mood and get a whole audience up on their feet for a spontaneous flash mob.

I love having the cast albums in my car to keep me energised and to assist me with amusing fellow drivers with my uninhibited attempts to channel my inner Celie. I love musical theatre for the catharsis, the way it makes me think, and, to quote a poet-friend of mine, it demonstrates resoundingly that  for both characters and audiences alike, 'It is both a blessing and a curse to feel everything so very deeply' (Credit: David Jones). I love musical theatre for so, so many reasons and I have no real, solid idea of why or how I ever though otherwise. So, to the world of musical theatre: I whole-heartedly apologise for the delay in my open appreciation and I look forward to my next trip- the next of many!

P.S OnStageBlog readers: Feel free to follow me and my passion for all things theatre (of all kinds, including musicals!) on Twitter- @alwayst4theatre 

Filming in the Theatre: Should Audiences be Warned at the Point of Ticket Purchase?

Elizabeth Collins

  • United Kingdom Columnist

I recently attended a performance of Dawn French's '30 Million Minutes' in the West End (review can be found on my blog, AlwaysTimeForTheatre.Wordpress.Com) Upon arriving, we found notices pinned to various walls declaring that the performance was being filmed and that if we objected to our image or voice being used, we should notify staff; failure to protest would result in the non-verbal confirmation of our permission to be filmed and/or recorded and for those recordings to be freely 'distributed internationally'... I personally have no problem with this in terms of finding myself suddenly popping up on the TV when the DVD arrives, it's not all that traumatic for me. But there must have been a few who were not so happy for whatever reasons, silently or otherwise. 

There had been no indication at the point of ticket purchase that filming would be taking place at that particular performance (presumably because dates were not finalized with the production company) so my question is this: should the audience have been given advance notice of this possible disruption to their outing before parting with their money? Should they have been given the opportunity to select a different performance, not being filmed, in order to fully enjoy the experience without being conscious of their posture or the herbs in their teeth from their pre-theatre meal? 

I don't want to be a party pooper, but I do think so, yes. My reason is that it wasn't so much of a fuss for me to be filmed/ recorded as a member of the audience, but it was the fact that the huge, industrial camera (which was so big that I actually had to duck underneath it to shimmy along my row to my seat) was pointed at my particular row. With the camera so close (with another at the opposite end of the row), it acted as a constant peripheral reminder that all of my reactions could be captured on film for all of time by that panning camera.

I will admit that this made me self-conscious about my reactions, which in turn made the experience less enjoyable; I'd be enjoying a moment in the moment before thoughts of whether or not my reactions would do her performance justice invaded that moment like a niggling impending sneeze- very irksome indeed. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the performance but rather that I think I would have been more relaxed and able to enjoy myself if the camera hadn't been there as an uninvited third party to our theatre outing! 

Personally, I bask in the escapism of going to the theatre, so I didn't really enjoy such self-awareness when I would rather have been habitually lost in the action on stage. Given the choice, I probably would have selected an alternative performance. So, what say you, dear reader? Would you like advance warning of filmed performances, or are you happy and capable of being watched with a camera's eye and still enjoy yourself as much as if it were not there at all? 

P.S: Look out for me on the DVD folks, I'm the one sitting bolt upright, smiling incessantly, you know, just in case... 

Student Trips: Vital for the Future of Theatre

Elizabeth Collins

  • United Kingdom Columnist  

Last night I watched 'The Monuments Men' and I've drawn a careful, mindful parallel between the need to preserve and protect great artworks while the world was at war, and the need for theatre to remain accessible for young people while all the world seems to be at war over financial gains and strains. Saving a Picasso piece or Michelangelo's Madonna and Child while the real human cost of war was all around, seemed futile at first; men were dying for stone and canvas- surely, this should not have been a priority? The same can be said of lamenting the loss of theatre opportunities for students; the world has much, much bigger problems- people are dying, financial constraints are worsening for some of the poorest in society, Brexit looms and Trump could be the next POTUS. All of this is well deserving of lengthy editorials - surely taking teenagers to the theatre is not a priority? I can see it, I assure you, and yet lament I must and lament I will. We need to provide more opportunities for young people to visit the theatre, and we need to invest in future generations of theatre-goers. It's said time and time again that children are our future, are they not? If they see theatre as unobtainable, they may well see it as dispensable. They likely hold the future of theatre in their powerful hands and we need to instil a sense of value of the arts in the minds and hearts of young people.

So what exactly do I have to bemoan? Allow me to explain, dear reader. I have proudly been the facilitator of students visiting the theatre for the first time on multiple occasions; it is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and it's something that I will keep working at for the duration of my career. However, I found a recent experience positively deflating. To support their study of the musical as play text, I attempted to book tickets for GCSE students to see a production of Willy Russell's wonderful musical, 'Blood Brothers'.

Actually seeing the text-as-studied brought to life as intended would have been invaluable for some of the students struggling with their studies. Seeing the show would also have assisted struggling students with the new exam requirement to memorise quotations; seeing the characters and story realised before their eyes would certainly have been memorable preparation for their exam. Their disappointment when told that the trip could not run was well matched with my frustration that I could not make it work for them.

While attempting to book tickets, I was told that the discounts and deals often available for school trips were not in place as it was a touring West End production. Therefore, the cheapest tickets available were in the gods, at £26 per student, with no allocation for staff chaperones (I have known smaller shows and theatres to offer a free staff ticket per ten student tickets booked). This alone was enough to put most of the nails into the coffin, but factoring in the cost of the coach to get us all there and back was the very final nail. The knowledge that many of these students had never been to the theatre before and were likely to never show an independent interest made my heart sink further; their time at school is almost up, they will soon move on and to my knowledge, many will not have set foot in a theatre by the time they leave school. The window of opportunity for these students to experience theatre at a young age has been missed because this trip was just too expensive to run. So I am asking, how can we promote a love of theatre from a young age when young people feel that theatre is inaccessible?

So why not just book a smaller show which does offer more affordable options? Well, because this was an intended school trip, and school trips are subject to many, many terms and conditions; among other, practical things, they must be educational, they must be linked to the curriculum and they must be affordable for a substantial amount of students in order to be deemed worthwhile. Therefore, theatre trips are mostly restricted to texts being studied, primarily at GCSE and A Level, so seeing this particular production of this particular show at this point in the year seemed perfect- and it would have been, had it been financially viable. So what does this mean? It means that opportunities are not always readily available and now, as prices continue to rise, theatre seems to be slipping ever more out of reach for young people.

Trips run by schools are often the only opportunity to experience the rewards of live theatre afforded to many young people, and missing this window seems nonsensical to me. After all, if theatre is to thrive in the future, love of theatre must be introduced for future audiences in a positive, memorable way, not as something that 'wasn't for me'- particularly when it's financial restriction alone which stands in the way. Despite the financial frustrations and aside from the educational value, there's a sense of life-long enjoyment to be instilled.

School budgets are tight and I know of schools with printing and photocopying embargoes owing to budget constraints; subsidising theatre trips on a large scale is not a priority, and even with systems in place to support students from low-income households, it's not easy to have such funds released for arts trips. What's more, there are so many students not considered to be from low-income homes and yet come from homes which, understandably, given the current economic climate, do not have the financial freedom to pay such high prices. More and more families are struggling financially, food bank reliance continues to increase and consequently, school trips are out of the question regardless of how educationally valuable they might be. I have complete sympathy and I completely understand why funds for trips (including theatre trips) are not a priority when schools and parents are struggling financially, so I'm suggesting that theatres and companies do more.

I'm not sure what the exact solution is, and I know options will differ depending on schools and regions, but if theatres and companies could find a pot of gold which could make prices kinder to younger audiences, whether the show is a touring production or not, it would be gold well invested. I know that many theatres run commendable outreach programmes, striving to connect with younger, new audiences, so perhaps we need to see a more monetary manifestation of this investment in terms of school involvement? While I am of course aware of the increasing financial strains in the arts, my point is that to ensure future revenue for decades to come, fresh interest is needed and young audiences need the opportunity to fall in love sooner rather than later. School-aged young people should be given more attention and not just in the form of youth theatres and similar programmes, but through more direct interventions with schools.

So I'll repeat: children are our future, are they not? They likely hold the future of theatre in their powerful hands, so let's invest in them, let's facilitate a powerful connection with theatre and the arts from an early age,  and let's build more bridges to allow opportunities to be realised rather than abandoned.

Theatre IS Elitist!

Luke John Emmett

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

Theatre is elitist. There, I’ve said it.
It’s out there and now I will try and explain what I mean and justify such a deliberately provocative headline before I get an influx of angry slapping jazz hands heading in my direction.
I have been writing and re-writing this post since the Theatre 2016 Conference (for more info see here) earlier this year. I wrote a blog post on the conference itself which gives a bit more of the context of my arguments (see here for more info).
The biggest issue with Theatre 2016 was that it was headlined as a conference for anyone who cares about the future of theatre. But the majority of people could not afford to go along and attend and no live video stream was made available meaning the event was closed off to those “lucky enough” to be able to attend. Those of us who were there did all we could to share info via Twitter so that others could keep track of what was being said.
When a conference organised by members of the theatre community out-prices many other members of the community you know we have a massive problem.
It’s therefore no surprise that many people have been speaking out about the cost of theatre tickets recently. There have been some shocking examples – Elf The Musical had top price tickets at around £140. Theatre is still seen as a luxury and not something for everyone and I find that a massive shame.
So what is the answer? Arts subsidy is becoming less and less. Local authorities are cutting arts budgets left right and centre and costs of creating productions and ensuring everyone is paid properly are ever-increasing.
Are discounted or cheaper tickets really the answer?
I spoke to one lady who was the Marketing Manager of a large theatre. She said that they tried offering cheaper/discounted tickets for productions. In her experience they gained very few new audience members. Instead what happened was that those who would normally pay top-whack instead snapped up the cheaper tickets. I would argue that perhaps it wasn’t marketed or handled as well as it could have been to attract those audiences, and manage who could book the tickets they claimed these deals were for.
One theatre where it has been successful is in Sheffield where they have opened up their dress rehearsals for the cost of £1 per ticket. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it’s great that people get the chance to see a show in an affordable way. It’s good for the actors to have an audience before they officially open. But, why should people who want to see productions be forced to see a dress rehearsal and not a real performance just because they cannot afford it. It feels slightly derogatory to me.
John Tusa in his fabulous book “Pain in the Arts” comments: “Never think that audiences are less intelligent, less curious, less informed than yourself. They aren’t. Never patronise them, never sell them short, never seek the lowest common denominator, avoid the middle ground, eschew easy attempts at bribery by cheap offers. Trust them and they will trust you, and may even come to surprise you.”
The biggest problem is that our larger organisations are very closed off. They have become something of a “club” for the white middle-classes and can prove quite impenetrable to those of us who are not members of “the club” yet. I say this as someone who has floated very much on the fringes of “the club” for many years. I’ve dipped my toes in their somewhat murky waters but more often than not you find many more doors are closed than opened.
This unfortunately leads to several inevitabilities. The main one is very little ever changes. When you have the same people in the same roles they tend to do things the way that they have always done them. Without fresh views and voices coming through things have a tendency to remain the same. A large percentage of those running our theatres are business managers. They are great at looking at what makes money or a secure investment but have very little interest in a dialogue with the communities that surround their theatres. As long as they are producing products that sell they are happy.
Another common practice is the add-on of community engagement programmes that are slapped on the side of large production houses because they need to be seen to be engaging the community more. They have numerous degrees of success. Many of them tend to only ever engage with the same few people though. The only way in my opinion that these programmes truly have an impact is if community is embedded throughout the entirety of the organisation and all its policies. Only by putting the community at the heart of an organisation can you truly engage with it.
There are a few theatres that have very successfully managed this. I think of Home in Manchester where the community were involved with every step of the planning of the organisation. Because their approach was to actively include the community in its programming decisions and workshop decisions the community felt like they were part of the theatre and that their opinions mattered which have proved massively beneficial with a diverse audience in attendance at productions there.
Sheena Wrigley again at the Theatre 2016 conference commented that we should “dismantle regional theatres and put them back together again”, and I think she’s right. It would cause some chaos initially but if things could be rebuilt with a more diverse make-up of people then things would begin to change. If you do not have people with new views or open to new ideas things will always remain the same. This of course will never happen but it’s an interesting idea and concept.
I really hate organisations that try to create top-down community programmes. They do not work. What right have you to tell communities what they should and should not be interested in doing? Why not instead work with those communities to see what it is that they want or need. Get members of those communities on your boards, speaking at your meetings, making decisions about your outreach programmes. The more buy-in you get from individuals from communities the better engaged the communities will become.
A large part of the problem is that our audiences and the make-up of our organisations only represents those who are creating or producing the work. It’s the old employing people for a job psychological mind-set. Psychologists have proven we are much more likely to employ people who resemble ourselves in some way. That subconsciously we are always looking for people similar to us. It is human nature and a very difficult thing to fight against. Using horrific stereotypes but look at the groups school children form. You have the "cool kids" who are perhaps into sports, the "cool girls", the bullies, the bullied and the general oddballs. We naturally flock towards groups that we feel comfortable within, groups that contain qualities that we recognise within ourselves.
If those people aren’t represented by the organisations and by the productions on stage then it can be an immediate barrier to making those people feel like theatre is relevant or accessible to them.
The theatre buildings themselves can be a barrier. We are lucky. We spend most of our time in theatres and the experience has become normal to us. Try and imagine what it feels like for someone who has never attended before. I’ve had conversations with people who say they won’t attend the theatre because they do not know how they are supposed to act, what they are supposed to wear, what they are allowed to do once they are in there, “are you supposed to talk with a posh voice?” These are all totally fair comments. Our playhouses are incredibly grand structures with elaborate decorations. They look rich and glorious but this can also be intimidating. Do we ever tell people what they should expect when attending a theatre production? Do you know of any venues who specifically say on their website what you should expect when attending? Things like turning mobile phones off. The fact that the lights will go down at the start. All basic stuff which we take for granted but that some people really do not know about. I tend to dress fairly casually myself and actively attend theatre in a hoodie, jeans and trainers much to the disgust of some audience members who take great delight in tutting at me because of it. So it’s as much about educating our audiences as it is our organisations.
Some shows have really helped to attract new audiences to theatres. The ones that immediately spring to mind are American Idiot and Harry Potter. For me I found it really encouraging that at the performance of American Idiot I watched in the West End that the majority of the audience were young Greenday fans, wearing hoodies and thoroughly embracing the show and experience. Harry Potter is one show I’m currently split over. I think it’s great that it has attracted a wide variety of new people to the theatre. But it has become something of an exclusive event, for those who can afford to see it. The sad reality is that the show will never be fully accessible to all those who loved the books and the films. Many people will never get to experience this production because they cannot afford it. The producers have taken some steps to try and help this situation by releasing a number of tickets every Friday at a cheaper rate but I still feel more could be done.
My final point is on education and the arts. A lot of articles have surfaced recently in the Stage Newspaper and Guardian about the rising cost of drama training and the decline in young people taking the arts at GCSE and A-level. I think the problem is more general than theatre and my personal opinion is that anyone who wants an education should be entitled to one. It should not just be those who have money that can afford to attend educational training of any kind. I think as an industry we need to do more to address the drop in take up of drama GCSEs and help highlight the many benefits to young people being interested in theatre. The worry is that if we don’t, our organisations will continue to contain only those who went to the same few named drama schools and could afford to be there. We can only promote and create true diversity in the future if we have a diverse range of people studying and interested in drama.
Young people are the future of theatre and at the moment we are failing them and the communities they come from. We all have a responsibility to help make theatre more accessible and things will only begin to change if we keep on putting pressure on those who make the decisions. Now more than ever we need to work together to fight for the future of our industry and be the changes we wish to see.
Stella Duffy and her work with Fun Palaces constantly reminds me of something. Not all theatre happens within buildings. Perhaps it's time to remember the roots of where we have all come from. The essence of storytelling as a community. Sharing ideas and knowledge through tales created to inspire, to challenge and to reflect the world in which we live not just the world of those who run “the Club”. If those of us on the fringes are excluded from the story then the industry will be worse off for it. And when the playhouses are empty because the next generation was excluded from entry I hope you'll come and join us on the outside, where we will welcome you as equals, because our door is always open to you.

Dear Schools, Please, Be Generous with Your Theatrical Productions...

Elizabeth Collins

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

Attention Teachers and Students! Do you lead a drama group or club? Do you attend a drama group or club? Yes? Then read on...

A good few years ago, I watched a documentary that had me in tears. It focused on the lives of the elderly living in the UK both in and out of care homes, who spent their days sitting in recliner chairs, with few or no visitors dropping by to keep them company or break up the monotony. I decided then to use my influence as a teacher to give some happiness and entertainment to the elderly members of the communities in which I worked by taking my students into care homes to perform short scenes or mini plays.

I'm yet to figure out a way to involve elderly residents who are still living in their own homes, as that is obviously a more complicated event (but I am determined, and there will be a way I'm sure). However, I recently took my drama club out to perform for the residents at a local care home. It was touching and fulfilling to see just how much both the students and the residents enjoyed the afternoon. Having interesting, vibrant and enthusiastic young people visiting them to perform and have a chat is a gift that keeps on giving.

The students were also given time after the performance to chat with the residents and I have some beautiful photographs marking the occasion; it's so important to give young people a sense of responsibility and care for the people in our society who end up, in their later years, feeling very lonely and marginalised. The students clearly enjoyed chatting about their role and the production, as well as the club and school, while the residents shared their own stories of being in stage at school or later on. Memories were shared and memories were made; I'm already thinking about the next visit!

Performing locally takes minimal effort and funds- sometimes, a local residential care home can be a short walk away! Performing locally can also create a great community reputation for your school and could even be tied to fundraising. If you are a student, showing an interest in leading a partnership project would not only be a fantastic thing to talk about on your CV regarding leadership and ability to engage with wider audiences, but depending on your age, it could be a great strength in a university application. Most of all, though, it is a fantastic way of showing young people that there are individuals in their community who would greatly benefit from their company and performances; to see those who spend a lot of time behind closed doors, who are most in need of social recognition.

So, my plea to you is this: please, whether you are a teacher running clubs or creating productions, or you're a student attending the clubs or taking part in productions, look into forming a partnership with local care homes. Taking students out or leading trips out for your drama club, to perform for local residents every few months, can be such a wonderful experience for all involved. Performers love to perform for audiences, and many residents in care homes appreciate being entertained by youthful, happy people; take a little time to share your joy, your talent and your productions- it can mean so much more than you might think!

Photo: The Crucible - Fremont High School 2014

Is Barbra Streisand the Queen of Screen and Stage Music?

Elizabeth Collins

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

'Encore', which came out last week, is the latest addition to Barbra Streisand's studio album catalogue, as well as her collection of albums spotlighting some of the greatest music for stage and screen. It is also, in my opinion, the latest evidence of her unrivalled position as Queen of Stage and Screen Music. Barbra Streisand remains one of the most successful music artists of all time, and as such, she reigns supreme on many, many levels. She is actor, singer and director alongside countless other roles, but her contributions to stage and screen music are the focus here. As most know, 'the actress who sings' got her 'big break' playing Fanny Brice in 'Funny Girl' at The Winter Garden Theatre in NYC in 1964. This led to the kind of exposure every up-and-coming YouTuber dreams of, and secured her place in the starring role when 'Funny Girl' was transposed for the screen. 

What fewer people know is that Streisand had parts in two off-Broadway productions - and that the cast albums for these are still available; 'I Can Get it For You Wholesale'(1962) and 'Pins and Needles' (1962). Many will have heard her comically exasperated 'Miss Marmelstein' as it was released on 'Just for the Record', but she sang a similar, titter- inducing song called 'Nobody Makes a Pass at Me' on the 'Pins and Needles' cast recording. If you haven't heard her sweep through 'What Good is Love?', gloriously descend from above stairs to below in 'Cricket to Picket' or shimmy her way through 'Doing the Reactionary' and 'Sitting on Your Status Quo' on 'Pins and Needles', then you are really missing out on some real early Streisand gems- listen and you'll hear the foreshadowing whispers of her inevitable future as icon.

The new album, 'Encore' takes its place next to 'The Broadway Album' and 'Back to Broadway' as Streisand's powerhouse odes to Broadway. She makes darn sure that we don't lose sight of her comic abilities with Melissa Mcarthy in 'Anything You Can Do' while treating us again and again to her perfected diction and smooth tones preceded and proceeded in turns by soaring 'belts' (Judy Garland and Ethel Merman labelled her 'the new belter' back in the sixties for a reason). This is evident in 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' with Jamie Fox and 'At the Ballet' with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley. She also continues to surprise me with her album content; in the case of 'Encore', it's 'Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)' with Anthony Newley- who knew such different voices could blend so refreshingly and strikingly? I had to listen to it a few times to really appreciate it, and it's now one of my favourites on the album. Not only does this album present us with ten stunning duets, it gifts us an additional four solo tunes including the Brolin-cameo'd 'Fifty Percent', which demonstrates once more that Streisand is the queen of nuanced, moving and gripping storytelling.

There has been some criticism of the dialogue introductions but I have to say that this seems rather illogical; it's a Broadway album, with songs taken from the stage- the dialogue seems perfectly natural in the context. I happen to like listening to the charm and the comedy of Sheila toying with the casting director while Maggie and Phoebe giggle at her fearlessness. The fact that Streisand pokes fun at the unrelenting and apparently unwarranted accusations about her being 'aggressive' (or as translated for men- 'assertive') is very endearing, and very entertaining. Likewise, if Streisand wanted that dialogue to induce us to envision her in a wide array of roles, then it most certainly worked, particularly well on 'At the Ballet'.

For me, 'Encore' serves as a show-stopping reminder of Streisand's enduring love affair with the music of stage and screen; it's not new ground, she has held this territory since very early on in her career. The standards are where she started and where she seems most fulfilled- and why not? As 'an actress who sings', they seem perfect. Somehow, I didn't discover Streisand's talents until 2006- it did mean that almost all of her music was readily accessible then, and I was able to enjoy five decades of music instantly. Sixties Streisand is by far my favourite; the power, the tone and the purity are unrivalled. It has everything to do with the full-bodied, swelling style across all of her albums in this decade- there isn't an album from this decade that I haven't listened to on repeat. Her rendition of 'Who Will Buy?' Form the Broadway production of 'Oliver!', released on 'The Second Barbra Streisand Album' remains one of the purest, most beautiful things that I have heard on record, and I think it has everything to do with her theatrical approach. 'Never Will I Marry', 'Non, C'est Rien', 'How Does the Wine Taste?' and 'Keepin' Out of Mischief Now' are all blazing examples of her varied and convincing character roles in song on her early albums.

My love of sixties Streisand doesn't mean that I'm not enamoured of the subsequent shifts in tone as her voice has aged like a fine Pope-worthy wine. She now has lovely breathy and somewhat sandy notes which adds a whole new facet of sound- and this evolution hasn't diminished the purity; it has a different tone, but the voice is still smooth as honey (or indeed, Buddah).  It's well documented in interviews that as a theatrical singer, Streisand approaches each song as a performance, and boy, does it show. The cast albums, Broadway albums, movie soundtracks and 'The Movie Album'- and indeed, the showtunes which can be found snuggling between other classics on many of her albums- are all glowing examples of her craft and her seasoned, accomplished and beautiful narrative talent.

Is there any more evidence of Streisand being the Queen of Stage and Screen Music? Why, of course. The 'stage and screen' albums of Barbra Streisand have always been well received, and rightly so; her gifts to the world of stage and screen span decades and are of enduring quality. 'The Movie Album' carries much loved torch songs such as 'Moon River', 'Smile' and 'Wild is the Wind' while also shifting gear for 'You're Gonna Hear From Me' and 'I'm in the Mood for Love'. 'The Broadway Album' offers classics such as 'Send in the Clowns', 'Somewhere' and 'Not While I'm Around', but again also makes swift transitions in sound and style, offering 'Putting it Together' (with a dialogue introduction which seems to be autobiographical in nature) and the comical 'Adelaide's Lament'. 

'Back to Broadway' documents the shifting tone in Streisand's voice, gracing audiences with a transcendental rendition of 'The Music of The Night' accompanied by Michael Crawford, 'Speak Low' and 'Some Enchanted Evening'. The rich, full, swelling style remains, as does her inveterate interspersal of genres and pace, documented in the defiant 'Everybody Says Don't' and the classic 'Luck Be a Lady'. Some tunes were included in the stunning compilation album 'Duets' (lovingly brought into being a good few years before the more recent 'Partners'), which also featured her duet with Sinatra on 'I've Got a Crush on You', previously released on a Sinatra album. Side note: get yourself a copy of 'Duets' if you've found yourself to be a fan of hearing Streisand's harmonic triumphs with very, very lucky people (cue song...). The only thing missing from 'Duets', for me, is the 'Hooray for Love' medley with Judy Garland, which is quite simply, sublime (and can be found on 'Just for the Record'). There's also reason to mention her rendition of 'Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead' which appeared on a Harold Arlen compilation before being added to 'Just for the Record' and 'Duets'. 

Likewise, the album 'Memories' is worth note- with the title song 'Memory, from 'Cats' which for me, completely eclipsed the original and remains one of my favourite tracks from Streisand. Actually, 'Just for the Record, features some lovely, rare early Streisand recordings, with plenty of Broadway-style delivery and is worth a look- if only for the well hidden but very pretty 'Between Yesterday and Tomorrow' which sounds worthy of the likes of 'Les Mis' or 'Phantom' in style.

It's not just on albums that Streisand glorifies showtunes. Her live concerts also include  some great renditions of songs such as 'A Cockeyed Optimist' from 'South Pacific' and medleys from 'Gypsy' (soon to be her next movie, it is hoped). Her career is steeped in showtunes and if you want to hear every one, you'll have to trawl through a phenomenal back-catalogue, including concert recordings- but it's worth it, I swear. I look forward to 'Gypsy' and I find myself, somehow, convinced that Streisand will eventually get round to recording some of my favourite imaginings; 'Defying Gravity' and 'Because I Knew You' (possibly with Adele or my favourite Elphaba, Rachel Tucker) to start with...

The six decades of inimitable and jaw-dropping success following her 'Funny Girl' debut, including number one albums in each of those six decades, has resulted in Barbra Streisand winning a phenomenal amount and range of awards. Her impressive catalogue includes the incredibly rare combination of Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards- no doubt one day there'll be a Barbra or Streisand award, and she'll win that too. According to her official website; '...this ten-time Grammy winner’s 52 gold albums, 31 platinum and 18 multi-platinum exceed all other female singers in each category. The RIAA also notes that her 72.5 million albums sales tops its list of album sales by a female artist.' All of this, and all of the above, as well as works that I am unable to document here without metamorphosing my opinion piece into a full academic thesis, evidences Streisand's enduring and well-deserved status as the Queen of stage and screen music. Nobody should be surprised though, she did tell us way back when: 'I'm the Greatest Star, I am by far, but no one knows it...' Unsurprisingly, the former remains and is now very well documented, while thankfully, the latter is now no longer the case. Theatre lovers, rejoice! 

Here's a shortlist of worthy 'stage and screen' recordings as well as Streisand's soundtracks:

'The Movie Album'
'Funny Girl' (of course- although why they cut 'Cornet Man' from the movie I will never understand- notably though, 'Who Are You Now' carries the same pure sound as the aforementioned 'Who Will Buy?')
'Funny Lady' ('I Found a Million Dollar Baby', 'Isn't This Better' and 'How Lucky Can You Get' are fabulous).
'On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever' Soundtrack (I love this album dearly- listen to 'Love With all the Trimmings' in particular if you have a penchant for all things Broadway/ musicals).
'Yentl' (There's so much more to this soundtrack than 'Papa, Can You Hear Me?' Namely the call-to-action 'A Piece of Sky'.)
'Hello Dolly' 
'A Star is Born'

Many of her movies have soundtracks, although those listed below are either primarily orchestrations or don't feature songs actually performed on screen.
'The Way We Were'- there's the soundtrack for the eponymous movie as well as a studio album- the studio album in particular is well worth purchasing.
'The Prince of Tides'
'The Owl and the Pussycat' 
'The Main Event'.

'Pins and Needles'
'I Can Get it for You Wholesale'
'Funny Girl'
'The Broadway Album'
'Back to Broadway'
'Memories'- primarily for the incomprehensibly beautiful rendition of 'Memory' from 'Cats' but for some of the other gems hidden here on one of her lesser discussed albums.