Are we losing the spectacle?

Some of my closest friends – who would absolutely call themselves “theatregoers” – haven’t seen shows where there are less than 500 seats in the auditorium. And that’s OK. These friends go for the grandeur and spectacle. I’ve asked them to tell me of an intimate theatre experience they’ve had; they struggled, and mostly gave up.

At the other end of the spectrum, you get the shows designed for an audience of one. We tried something different last year by working with Bootworks to take The Incredible Book Eating Boy to 11 venues. This beautiful, five-minute show is performed 30 times per day and designed for one person to watch the action unfurl from inside the company’s installation. The problem with productions like this is that, for all their delicacy, a venue cannot cover the company’s and their own costs on limited capacity shows.

It is so often the set, costumes and props that build and hold the spectacle, and smaller scale productions will often sacrifice these in favour of greater performance space. Many small studio spaces, particularly fringe venues, are often the size of the rooms the shows are made in. Sparse sets, simple lighting – this isn’t a problem because it fits. It works. For one thing, you know that you can easily throw everything in the boot and hit the road. But take that piece out of studio environments and put it on a stage in front of 120, 250, 400 seats and when does it become lost? Can two chairs have the same effect under a proscenium arch as on a studio floor?

Minimalism doesn’t equal bad, or unspectacular. Katy Snelling, programmer at both Oxford Playhouse and their 50-seat Burton Taylor Studio, told me: “The joy of a small show in a small space is the audience relationship. When it doesn’t work there is nowhere to hide. But when it does it is unforgettable, electrifying and often incredibly intense. That close-up view can more than make up for the lack of spectacle a larger show and venue can offer.”

For me, the quality of the audience is as important as the calibre of actor; there is a direct correlation between the two and the audience’s interpretation. No matter how strong the performance, a lacklustre audience can dampen everyone’s spirits. I was recently at a solo show where the performer made eye contact with the audience. I watched as two young girls in the front row sat squirming in their seats; they turned to each other at the end and said, “that was amazing.” That’s where they found the spectacle. As an audience member, I want to be able to block out the “real world”.  My personal gauge of that is being able to make it through a show without looking at my watch; then I know I’ve been hooked.

The venues across the house network come in all shapes and sizes. When we’re sourcing work, we often look for pieces to cater for anything from a 5m wide black box studio to a 400 seat proscenium arch venue, and that’s hard. The truth is that very few shows are designed to adapt to such a wide range of stages. Our first house commission, Transport’s As You Like It, was always intended to have a cast of eight – but we challenged them to make it flexible. They filled spaces as broad as Basingstoke Haymarket to Diss Corn Hall.

Of course, not every performance space is big enough for eight. In finding productions to tour for house this year, we’ve noticed an increase in the number of solo shows available for touring; there are three in upcoming house tours. “I worry a lot about whether I have too many solo shows in the [Burton Taylor studio] programme but I’m not sure my audience shares my concern,” says Katy. “Though of course they’re not just one audience, just as all solo shows aren’t all the same.” For her, this is relative to cost – and it’s important. “I’d love shows with bigger casts but the figures don’t often allow me what I’ve come to see as a luxury. With a target of breaking even I can pay a fairly OK guarantee if it’s just one person, for two what I can offer feels a bit embarrassing and more than two certainly requires the company to find funding from elsewhere as well, which adds its own complications.”

A great deal of small- and mid- scale touring shows now start their lives at the Edinburgh Fringe, and although there is wide variety in the size of the performance spaces, a good proportion will be performed on stages little more than three metres deep and run at around an hour, straight through. And that’s not a bad thing. A number of programmers – including ourselves – use the Edinburgh Fringe to find work for future programmes. To steal an analogy from Katy, it is the equivalent of a shopping centre – full of a variety of things to buy, to wonder at but leave on the shelf, to see the same product in five different incarnations.  You can easily fill your day with familiar brands, safe bets, and miss out on independent and unique treasures.

In the same way, programmers can also struggle at festivals to find the piece that fits right despite being perfect for their audience – too tall/wide/deep, or just not big enough to own the space. That’s not to say that they then give up; they improvise. Production doesn’t need a black box? Use a different space in the building. Production too intimate for the 400 seat venue? Turn the stage into an equivalent studio space.

As with most discussions about art, there is no set mould that can be fit; no “one size fits all” rule. The truth is that I have been in a theatre somewhere in the West End and felt the intimacy of a production in spite of the grandeur, and been left alone in a basement room at a fringe venue awed by the piece. For me (paraphrasing the film adaptation of The History Boys) art is just the icing on the cake. That’s where you find the spectacle. Perhaps, for each different opinion, it’s just a case of how thick they like their frosting – and every now and then you’ll find that cake that’s a bit too dry.