For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few years about the difficulty of audiences coming to the theatre prepared to see only what they know already, when all the time what one really wants, if one is serious about making theatre, is to get them to see something which they have never, up to that point, properly considered. This is, I suppose, a problem which confronts every artist of every type to some degree; but I suspect that the problem is tougher for makers of theatre because, being engaged in an ephemeral art-form, and usually requiring, for financial reasons, an audience of some size, theatrical practitioners have to worry more about being immediately apprehensible. It is perhaps easier, in these terms, to be innovative in the sense of providing a startling spectacle of some kind than it is to encourage people to see and ponder an idea which is truly new to them.
Perhaps the most dismal circumstances in which one may encounter this disinclination to see anything other than what one already knows is at the hands of a reviewer. The main job of theatre critics is (or should be) to foster the intellectual climate into which the work enters, and if there is an implicit suggestion that one needn’t disturb one’s preconceptions any more upon entering a theatre than one does in lazily allowing the most conventional sit-com to drift across one’s television screen, then the public discourse remains flat and arid; the theatre-makers are dropping their seed upon stony ground.
I think we (everybody who cares about theatre) need to look for more ways to stimulate public discourse, to insist that theatre matters. In short, I suppose I want more people to share my carping dissatisfaction with productions that are made merely to please the makers’ egos or to pleasantly divert the audience from the tedium of real life. To be sure, those aspects always have to factor into the work, but it would be nice for people to at least want, if not to expect, more. I can think of nothing quite so depressing as that feeling I have when leaving a dully conceived, unimaginatively written, ploddingly directed and indifferently performed production, and I realize that I am in the company of people who are actually incapable of having even wished for something better. All creativity begins, I suppose, with the observation: “this could be better.” And having people leave the theatre thinking creatively is what the art form is all about, isn’t it?