A book group, for theatre

by Maddy Costa

in National Conference

Post image for A book group, for theatre

(Photo by Katherine Leedale, from what happens to the hope at the end of the evening. Pictured: Tim Crouch, Andy Smith. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

You saw the show –

the one with the rave reviews and the star ratings strung up like fairy lights;

or the one in the warehouse across town that you were scared to attend;

the one with big themes: race, war, the degradations of inequality;

or the one so naked you could hardly bear to watch.

You saw the show –

but now what?

Is there someone to talk to about what this show made you think,

how it made you feel,

not just in the hour after but

a week later

a fortnight later?

Is there

a forum for discussion,

something other

than the traditional post-show, in which

those voices of authority and expertise –

you know,

the playwright, the director, the actor,

the critic –

share their interpretations

without space being made to explore yours?

And if the answer is no,

is that OK?

And if the answer is no,

to what extent does this limit theatre’s collaboration with its audience?

And if the answer is no,

what happens to the hope at the end of the evening?

That last line, what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, is the title of a show I saw twice in 2013, a show that thinks out loud about community, friendship bonds, and the potentially radical act of going to the theatre. It posits theatre as an inherently hopeful act, in which people gather to “see where we are [and] think about where we might be going”. The narrator, Andy – played by the show’s co-author, Andy Smith – is studying for a PhD in “what the theatre does, and what it might be able to do”. Partway through, he shares a fragment of his research:

“In her 2009 book ‘Theatre & Audience’, Helen Freshwater writes the following: ‘Our sense of the proper, or ideal relationship between theatre and its audiences can illuminate our hopes for other models of social interaction.’ She suggests that the theatre is a place in which we can clarify thought around some of our expectations of community, of democracy, of citizenship.”

As someone who doesn’t make but thinks, talks and writes about theatre – a critic, but a stretchy and unconventional interpretation of that word – I’m also interested in forging new models of social interaction. Finding new ways for people who make, watch and write about theatre not simply to inhabit a space together but to talk with each other, to share. This is the manifesto of Dialogue, the “collaborative playspace” I curate with my friend Jake Orr (founder and artistic director of British organisation A Younger Theatre). As Dialogue, Jake and I have taken residence within theatres and festivals, experimented with “embedded criticism” and advocated for local critical communities. But our most consistent and successful activity is our Theatre Club: informal discussion events modeled on the book group, in which a motley community of people gather to discuss a specific show.

These are the thoughts around my expectations of community, of democracy, of citizenship, that Dialogue Theatre Club clarifies and puts into practice:

There are no voices of authority.

No one involved in the show under discussion is present.

One opinion is as valid as another,

one interpretation is as valid as another.

We are attentive to each other’s voices

respectful and responsive.

We are talking about theatre, but through that so much more:








We judge neither the show nor each other.

We look through each other’s eyes

and see the show anew.

I wish Jake and I could claim the idea as our own, but that credit goes to Lily Einhorn, the remarkable manager of the Two Boroughs participation project at the Young Vic Theatre in London. In a blog describing the thinking behind the Two Boroughs Theatre Club that she established in 2012, with me as host, Lily writes:

“A lack of language – not of basic understanding of English, but theatrical and artistic language, is not something we regularly, or readily, address in participation. How do you discuss what you have seen if you do not have the words? Or anyone to use those words with?”

Here are some things people who attend the Two Boroughs or Dialogue Theatre Clubs discover:

You don’t need access to a specialist language to talk about theatre.

You don’t need to know the history of a text or its performance;

you don’t need to be au fait with avant-garde trends;

you don’t even need to know upstage from downstage

(I don’t).

It’s just a conversation. People talking

about what they saw and heard

on a stage,

or in a performance space,

what it made them think,

why it made them feel.

What they understood

and what left them confused.

If you don’t want to talk,

that’s fine, too.

Hearing is as important as being heard.

In the democratic, communal spaces created by the Theatre Club, I’m no longer The Critic: I’m simply another member of the audience. Others at the Club might work in theatre, but they’re just as likely to be lawyers, charity workers, teachers, communications officers, parents, unemployed. At one Dialogue Theatre Club, a woman who works in child protection shared her views along with a bus driver. At another, a puppeteer chatted with medical students specializing in mental health. Sometimes we will gather directly post-show, but more often – and more successfully – we see the show on different nights; unlike in conventional criticism, which fixes theatre in the glare of the press night, Theatre Club appreciates the process and multiplicity of live performance that is re-created night after night. Whenever Theatre Club takes place, we always aim to have drinks and food (wine, juice, crisps, biscuits) in the room. How better to make people feel comfortable than by providing home comforts?

Since beginning to host Theatre Clubs 18 months ago, I have had a number of gratifying conversations with participants. The theme is usually the same: I don’t have anyone else to talk to about theatre; I’ve always been too scared to talk about theatre, in case people thought I was stupid; I didn’t understand or enjoy the show but after this conversation I’d like to see it again. This feeling of transformation is reciprocal: my sense of the kind of critic I want to be, the conversations I want theatre to open up for me, has changed radically. And seeing theatre through the eyes of people for whom it’s not a profession but an enthusiasm or even less, an occasional entertainment, an object of mild curiosity, has enriched my appreciation incalculably more than a lifetime spent reading reviews.

Because theatre –

the theatre I believe in

and want to see –

isn’t about how much you know.

It’s not about privileged information, or specialist education.

It’s some people, in a room, telling a story

or sharing a way of looking at the world.

It’s a place where strangers can congregate

without suspicion

or competition

or hostility.

A place of hope.

Theatre Clubs thrive because they are this place, too.

little maddyMaddy Costa is a writer, crafter, dreamer and mother of two, based in London. She writes about theatre and music for the Guardian and Exeunt, and on her blog, Deliq. Since 2011, she has been critic-in-residence with theatre-makers Chris Goode & Company, documenting their processes and performed work through storytelling, interviewing and deeply personal reflection. In 2012 she began collaborating with writer/producer/entrepreneur Jake Orr on Dialogue, an ongoing project that invites people who make, watch and write about theatre to start up new conversations and rethink their relationships with each other. Since 2013, she has been working with British production company Fuel on a research project, New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, advocating a new engagement between audiences and touring work. One day she might write a book of cake recipes, or a novel, sew dresses or start painting again. But theatre and small children are preoccupying enough for now. http://statesofdeliquescence.blogspot.co.uk/ http://www.welcometodialogue.com/ https://newtheatreiyn.wordpress.com/