For me, one of the most exciting things about theatre – whether or not I personally like a particular show – is its ability to spark discussion. But carving a space for that discussion to take place can be challenging. There is now an established tradition of post-show Q&As with the cast and creative team, but these can often be stilted, awkward and not particularly conducive to genuine conversation. So how might it be possible to get theatregoers talking more openly?
One new format that has been explored by the Young Vic, Dialogue and Fuel is the theatre club model. Based on the idea of a book club, it was first tested by Lily Einhorn, project manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs community engagement scheme, who brought in Maddy Costa to help run the sessions. The structure was that the event would be held separately to the show – just as members of a book club will all read the book separately and at different times – and no members of the artistic team would be present in the discussion.
Maddy, who has since taken the format around the country with Dialogue and Fuel (as well as discussing it at one of house’s own venue network meetings), explained to me that this model “opened up the possibility of people just being honest, not only in criticisms but also in being able to express confusion or bewilderment or unhappiness or some kind of experience that specifically chimes with their own personal experience – all those things there’s not really space for in a lot of critical discourse”. It’s an event at which everyone is equal and welcome to air any thoughts they have about the production under discussion without the fear of being judged.
At a time when theatres arguably need to invest more in their audiences, as Lyn Gardner has persuasively suggested, this model might offer one way to engage theatregoers more deeply and meaningfully with the work they see. All too often our opinions are made to feel worthless or irrelevant, but art is something that we should all be able to talk about, regardless of background, knowledge or experience. Perhaps if audience members are made to feel that their presence and their responses matter, they might make more of an effort to come back.
So how to nurture the open and equal environment that Maddy describes? Firstly, it is important that the theatre club exists independently of the show itself, allowing audiences time and space to reflect on what they have seen. As well as organising the theatre club separately from the show where possible, simple touches such as refreshments can establish a more relaxed environment. Maddy insists that providing food and drink “completely changes the nature of the thing; you’re there in a social capacity”. If one thing seems to be key, it is setting people at ease.
I recently wrote a longer article for The Stage about the idea behind theatre clubs, as well as a series of other alternative theatre discussion formats, which you can read here.