Sunday, 20 December 2009

Arts in the Recession: Pub Theatre

I'm not going to pretend to my more metropolitan readers that pub theatre is a new phenomenon. In the capital, theatre spaces began to establish a permanent presence above the downstairs bar in the early seventies. But then alcohol has always been part of the theatre going experience: the south bank in Shakespeare's day was alive with beer swilling, whore chasing, bone chewing gamblers and thieves who chose between Hamlet and bear baiting as forms of popular entertainment, while music hall was a riot of gin drinking that began in saloon bars in the early Victorian era.

But what I have noticed in recent times is the new variant of pop-up pub theatre: a company takes over an upstairs - or downstairs - room for a month - or a week or a day - and puts on a play or two before moving on. Theatre professionals may sneer at the idea - they have their subsidised venues to protect - but whatever these productionslack in extravagance, they make up for with intimacy.

I know you have an image of amateur dramatics fixed in your head. Let me try and disabuse you of that notion. These days, we have more trained actors and allied professions than we know what to do with. The academies churn out far more media professionals than the media can ever use. Many of these creative types will spend a year or two eking out a living on the fringe before surrendering to a more lucrative career. Even then, most will want to keep their hand in in their spare time. Of those that make it, some will retain a romantic yearning for their days travelling from small stage to small stage in a transit van.

Let's take the Partcular Theatre Company's recent production of Forsaken at Exeter's Hour Glass Inn as an example. The Hour Glass has long used its cellar room as a place of entertainment. During the last World Cup, it became a sports bar for those who hate sports bars. On Sunday afternoons it has served as both a secret cinema and party venue. During peak periods, it reverts to the kind of restaurant that might be a harem canteen. But in September it became a fifty seat theatre not for one but eighteen performances of an original piece of theatre.

What is more, if the evening of my visit was any indication, it was a sell out - for an unknown company putting on a new piece of writing at a venue with no theatre history. That demonstrates an appetite for endeavours of this kind in our more bohemian provincial towns, but what were the secret ingredients of this particular recipe? Theatre audiences eat and drink: they like to meet first to catch-up socially then hand-out afterwards to discuss what they've just experienced. The Hour Glass encouraged these traits by putting on plates of pre-theatre food at a time that didn't interfere with it's always-busy restaurant. The producers helped out by laying on bite-sized performances at 6pm and 10pm - poetry, stand-up, sketches, music. These were free-to-all, but encouraged ticket holders to turn-up early and stay on late. They gave locals and regulars something not to moan about. And the performers could try out material on a willing audience without the pressure of a paying crowd,

The production team did a good job on the publicity, with distinctive posters up all over town and local press and radio backing the venture. But otherwise they didn't pander to the lowest common denominator. The company specialise in new writing and this piece by Helen Davis took on the unlikely prospect of a nun falling in love with a gay man, managed to avoid the potential for farce and prompted those in the stalls to question their own paths through life, so close were they to the characters doing the same on stage. The setting had a cave-like ambience that could contain a simple set design and create some of the magic of theatre. All of those involved had both professional training and experience and no one left disappointed.

Which isn't to say the truly amateur doesn't have its place. Earlier in the year, a local troupe took over the upstairs room of the Globe Inn in Newtown and put on an evening of Pinter and Beckett. Neither were great, but neither were bad either, and those two playwrights have plenty of badness potential. I predict that over the next few years, not all of our large-scale arts will survive pressures on public funding. As punters, we'll be less willing to pay big ticket prices, more interested in cultural soirées that combine a show of some kind with the opportunity to drink and chat with friends. And if we look back on the history of most art forms, it is out of those small scale scenes that most new work has emerged, away from the spotlight where it has a chance to grow without the need to do big box office, just make enough to get by.

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