Opening Doors – to experience theatre

doors-600x400For the last two weeks I seem to have been running around like a rather crazed theatrical being – part audience member, part promoter, part mentor & guide – and amidst it all I have clocked up some heartfelt and rich visits to see shows.

What has been resonating over that time is an idea floated by one of our Mountview academic teachers, Liz Lydiate, when exploring arts ecology with our MA Creative Producers. She talked of making sure the door (entrance way) into culture was accessible and welcoming. Doors have always been an important metaphor with me – with Maltby and Shires song “Doors” from Closer Than Ever, representing a powerful desert island disc for me.

So my question I find myself repeating is How do we fashion the doors which the people of this planet will recognise as welcoming and within which we can create relevant, inspiring, enlightening, enriching, and necessary theatre ?

In the last two weeks I’ve seen the first performance of Rhum and Clay’s new show Testosterone at the New Diorama. The powerful autobiographical testament by Kit Redstone wrapped in a gloriously accessible piece of physical theatre, melding dreams and dark reality exploring what it is to be a man. The doors of New Diorama welcome knowing theatregoers in the evening and unsuspecting office workers in the day. The welcome from the core team is true – and I hope the openness of the space allows for a sense of enquiry to find rich, unexpected theatre inside.

The theatre architect and founder of the Pleasance, Christopher Richardson, talks of the need for the foyers to be warm and welcoming and the theatre to be dark and mysterious. I really notice a theatre where they get that right, and even more so when I arrive on a dreek night and find they have got it round the wrong way.

I hot footed it from a masterclass at Mountview one night to catch Marcus Reeves’s new cabaret Sighs Ten at the very warm and welcoming Glory Tavern in Haggerston. Here the doors do not seek to welcome everyone into their dark and mysterious bar and cabaret spaces. They seek the right people who will love Marcus and the many other artists who play there. What excited me about Sighs Ten was to realise how rich, dark, and powerful Marcus’s songs and poetry is. I hope he will find that the UK festival and theatre/cabaret venue programmers will be excited by the sheer professionalism and musicality of his set, and the dark exploration of lonliness and survival which he offers.

I was at two readings – The Artificial Brain by Tom Manning and Thomas Ryalls at Diorama Studios and Monogamy by Torben Betts at Original Theatre’s New Wolsey Ipswich reading. Both have not yet opened their doors to audiences, and are using the reading and workshop process to decide exactly how to fashion the invitation. I can only imagine the feeling for a writer when their work is first shown off the page. Discussions after the event with cast and audience and creatives are vital in the process, and I look forward to being on the mailing list for both to see how and where they choose to present these studies of real life in all its messiness.

From Testosterone with trans performer Kit Redstone, through to the RSC Pit for CN Lester’s performance platform, Transpose, celebrating trans and trans-allied performers at the Barbican for one night. I love the Pit as a welcoming foyer space for the cinemas and the Pit Theatre – when you get there. The Barbican, at least this sat night, was heaving with so many audiences and restaurant goes and passers by all criss crossing around the main foyers at street level. I have no idea how anyone manages front of house there – they deserve a medal. But once you slip down into the bowels of the building there is a warm and welcoming foyer with a gathering of the right people to get the most from this evening of 6 very different artists. My thanks to all, but I do want to link you Jamie Hale and his powerful poetry and writing

Alongside theatre and cabaret my two weeks included 3 musical theatre happenings. The first the premier of Matthew Parker’s new production of Bryony Lavery’s Her Aching Heart which runs at the Hope Theatre until 23rd Dec  – a rich bodice ripping yarn which is getting lovely well deserved notices.

And then a treat for Kath and me – at last we took ourselves to Matilda. Whilst the doors are small, the welcome from the theatre is massive, and the right people were there having a ball. I have no idea how parents afford to take their children to see shows like this. We spent more on the two tickets that on all the other shows over the two weeks combined. However you get bang for your buck, I guess. Although £6 for a programme without the chance of a cast sheet feels just beyond a joke – for a show from an Arts Council subsidised company, albeit now presented commercially to help feed the coffers of the RSC.

And finally I headed down to my old school to see their production of Les Miserables School Edition, along with a load of people who were at the school and have declared that they have made a small (or I guess massive) pledge in their will. It is an annual invitation to the membership of what I call the “are they dead yet club”. A nice sandwich and coffee, a chance to meet other people who will, in time, fulfil their pledge and be useful to the school’s bank balance, and then on to Les Miserables. A cast of 70 plus tec team and orchestra delivered quite a punch. At its heart the show relies on a rich central performance from Valjean – and Simon Salvi delivered his heart and soul to us supported by some really good principals. When you leave Christ’s Hospital you are asked never to forget the benefits you have received, and in time try to feed back time, talent or treasure so that generations that come can benefit from the charitable education that is offered. Whether the founders counted musical theatre in their list of essential benefits to offer to young people I don’t know – but music has always been at the heart of the school.

The place hasn’t changed much since I was given the task 40 years ago to look after a young producer called Cameron Mackintosh who had come down to see a musical we were premiering called Cain by Visitor 2035. The original cast album is now a collectors item, and Sir Cameron has fashioned a few winners in his time. I look forward to coming back to the school in the Spring to do some CGO Surgeries and life/work balance coaching for those coming through their final years in Horsham. Thank you John Johnson (director) and Gemma Webster (MD) for another audience to hear the people sing.

The doors of Christ’s Hospital as a school are designed to be open to everyone – irrespective of ability to pay. You have to want to go to boarding school, and some don’t. But for me, and the current students who are just heading into final exams who I met on my visit, it is a great and lifechanging experience. It gave me the confidence to pursue my own path (with a quick pretend detour to study Maths), and to be confident to knock on doors even when they seemed scary and uninviting.

Our job in the theatre of the future must be, surely, not to rely on the self confidence of audiences or practitioners to push open or even knock on unwelcoming doors. Let’s make the doorways as warm and welcoming as possible

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