Challenges for the 'Big Stage': LA Theatre Makers Summit 2016

25th February 2016 at 10:23

Lancaster Arts Volunteer Hannah Norris shares her thoughts following her attendance at the Festival of Questions’ Theatre Makers Summit ‘Who Wants the Big Stage?’

Theatre vs. Netflix

Lancaster Arts’ Theatre Makers Summit, held at the Peter Scott Gallery as part of the first edition of the Festival of Questions, posed the question: ‘Are British theatre-makers no longer interested in making ambitious works for stage?’ The event featured major names in the theatre making world, from Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells, to theatre companies Proto-Type and Quarantine. However it was Sarah Thom from German based theatre company, Gob Squad, known for their radical political work that particularly struck a chord with me.

Sarah contextualised the ‘big stage’ within the wider world of audience leisure time, touching on the lure of Netflix, which she identified as perhaps the biggest competition for contemporary theatre. Sarah referred to conversations with taxi drivers as a unique opportunity to get the ‘lowdown’ on what’s going on in the world: What are people doing? What are their views? - Taxi drivers are the ones to ask. Particularly she discussed a recent conversation with a taxi driver in Lancaster, where he talked about people increasingly staying in “watching Netflix”. I get it, you can order food in, “why go out? It’s brilliant at home!” she exclaimed.

Yet perhaps Netflix is turning too many of us into duvet-loving binge-watching recluses. Maybe this started way before Netflix with the DVD player and box sets, but Netflix is pervasive – people I barely know ask me if I’ve seen 'Making a Murderer', or the latest 'Orange is the New Black'. I for one am also guilty of sitting in a scratchy pool of my own shortbread crumbs with my 'Sex and the City' box set churning out endless cringe-worthy episodes. I know it’s not good but it’s the easy option isn’t it? I think we really are missing out on something though. The excitement of going to the theatre, sharing moments in the darkness with a bunch of strangers. That moment where everyone quietens-down. The journey back home where you reflect on what you’ve just seen – you can’t beat these things. Yes, winter is grim and it’s cold outside, but there is so much value in swapping the duvet for a thick scarf and actually heading out: supporting your local art scene not faceless USA-based giants.

I was also intrigued to hear from Andrew Quick, one of the Artistic Directors of Imitating the Dog. He explained how changes that new digital technologies have brought about have allowed contemporary theatre-makers to approach the big stage in new ways and achieve increasingly ambitious productions. I saw Imitating the Dog’s ‘The Train’ on my first volunteering shift for Lancaster Arts and was impressed by the contrast between the small number of performers and the enormous technical ambition: it felt so much like a dream that it times it was uncanny. Quick also talked about another of their performances, 'Sea Breeze', which had a similar small number of performers but huge technical ambition and a production on a scale to match it. The performance took place at Winter Gardens in Morecombe in 2014, a venue which once showed huge performances with a capacity of 3,500 seats, it closed in the late 1970s and remains in a state of dereliction. The final production of 'Sea Breeze' featured just one performer with a choir - while massive projections into the space responded to what the space once was and emphasised the loss of the venue’s former life.

My knowledge of Morecombe is limited, my Dad tells me that at one point workers used to spend their weekends in Blackpool and their bosses – the ones with the wad - would spend their weekends in Morecombe. You can see it in the fancy buildings (if you ignore the peeling paint of course). Like a lot of British seaside resorts Morecambe is relatively rundown now. The demise of the Winter Gardens is linked to the prosperity of Morecombe itself. The Theatre Makers Summit participants suggested however, despite acknowledging the economic factor as significant, it is the ambition of emergent artists that is also playing a huge part in making (or not making) theatre for the big stage. Debate was generated around this point as participants commented that it is not lack of ambition but rather a lack of tools and expertise that restricts young theatre makers to smaller spaces and stages. Whether it is economic, ambition or a failure to adequately skill the youngest generation of theatre makers, it significant to consider Lancaster Arts’ question: ‘if we do not start making work for the big stage now, will the big stage be gone?’

The Theatre Makers Summit at Lancaster Arts at Lancaster University provided lots of food for thought, and I vow to keep venturing out to see performances and urge everyone else to do the same. Sarah Thom is certain that there is artistic ambition, but she also highlighted that large scale works need bums on seats - to avoid having more people on stage than in the audience – if audiences can’t be taken away from Netflix and a takeaway on the sofa then that’s a huge issue for the big, and even the small, stage.

Who Wants The Big Stage? A theatre makers summit was presented as part of Festival of Questions [2.2.16-20.2.16]  audio from the event can be found below.