Theatre is an integral part of what I study (being half an English student). To me, the experience of watching or reading a play is so unique from other literary mediums. People often claim that poetry is best spoken aloud rather than read, novels are an intimate experience between the writer and the reader. But the scripts we read in school, university, and in our free-time is pretty much always supposed to be practically carried out at some point. Theatre coaxes the realm of literature out of its theoretical bubble and puts it in front of a present audience, to be collectively seen, heard, and felt. Theatre can be (and often is) the most interactive literary medium and the effect it has on its audiences should not be understated.
Shakespeare is almost unanimously despised in secondary school classrooms for his inaccessibility and archaic language, but why are we never short of innovative Shakespearean adaptations on stage? Because the experience of watching a play is so much more immersive and interactive than simply reading it in silence.
My household wasn’t desperately poor, but when my mum decided that she wanted to take my sister and me to the theatre every month, we saw two plays before we abruptly came to the realisation that this lifestyle wasn’t quite as feasible as we had hoped. So let’s have a conversation about whether theatre-going is an educational opportunity or a middle-class hobby. I would like to give my answer with two points: 1) Unfortunately, it is, but it shouldn’t be, nor does it have to be and 2) does the theatre and arts industry exist for people of all walks of life, and if not, then for who?
When we look at the pure logistics of going to the theatre, ticket prices for plays have been steadily increasing over the past ten years, which inherently cuts off people from working classes who might otherwise love to see the most recent productions of their favourite plays. Not only that but what do we think of when we imagine the theatre? I for one imagine the West End, walking through Soho with Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plastered on the walls of every building.
If we put ourselves in the shoes of a working-class person who lives outside of London, all of a sudden the prospect of going to the theatre slips further away when we consider time and energy after long (maybe physically strenuous) hours at work, transport to Central London, accommodation if you’ve travelled far enough, tickets, and food and drink. All of a sudden, one night at the theatre can set you back by hundreds of pounds if you live outside the M25.
But is this how we should be imagining theatre if we are to consider it an educational opportunity and not just a pastime as obnoxiously bourgeois as golf? Central London isn’t the beginning and end of good theatre, and regional theatre is much more affordable. When we consider theatres like Nuffield Southampton Theatres, plays like The Shadow Factory were tailored to the experiences and history of those in Southampton, offering more recognition and empathy to those who cannot regularly go to what we usually think of when we think of theatre.
However, we can take this conversation further than the mere cost of going to the theatre. What about the theatre industry? Why would a working-class person go to the theatre? What would a trip to the theatre offer them once they get through the door? In my experience, you often see middle-class characters with middle-class stories and middle-class problems, not unimaginable, but not all that enjoyable either. The Guardian, in collaboration with Goldsmiths University, found that about 90% of the 2,539 respondents to their survey about the income and career aspirations of those in the theatre industry had to work for free at some point in their career. What exactly did we expect to come of this unapologetic exclusion of those who simply cannot work for free? Producers, writers, and directors are predominantly middle-class, and so is the work that they release.
This is not the fault of the individuals who undoubtedly work hard in the theatre industry who are from a middle-class background. But when the arts industry is unnecessarily concentrated in the capital city, regional theatre is underfunded (and now abandoned), the industry is riddled with the exploitation of young people through unpaid internships, why would a working-class person feel welcome to the theatre?
This is how things are nowadays, but if theatre teaches us one thing, we can imagine how things ought to be, and realise that this is not how things have to be. So in conclusion, the theatre itself is educational and an experience that people would like to feel and contribute to, but it is not treated as such, and this needs to change.