Uncut Debate

The Scotsman newspaper published an interesting article this week, Debating Political Theatre, written by Tiffany Jenkins, a cultural commentator. In it she suggests that even in an age of austerity and economic woe across much of the world, theatre has yet to respond in a robust and meaningful way. I don’t necessarily agree with her take, but it certainly gives pause for thought. 

Modern social drama has plenty of targets but is awash with complacency at a time when we badly need riotous debate, writes Tiffany Jenkins

POLITICAL theatre has a long and honourable tradition, reaching back to Ancient Greece when playwrights satirised the existing system to powerful effect. More recently, in the 1970s and 80s, political theatre was alive with attacks on……capitalism. At its best, it was vibrant and uncompromising. Most importantly, it had bite.

Today, over three years into the age of austerity, and political theatre appears to be in rude health. Its boom is suggested by the success of Theatre Uncut, formed in 2010 in response to public spending cuts and with the intention of encouraging debate and action. Leading playwrights have responded to this contemporary vehicle for short work made available for free for anyone to perform for a limited period. And they have done so in their thousands – so far, more than 3,000 people have staged these plays in more than 17 countries across four continents. This Saturday, there is a Mass Action Day where people will simultaneously stage seven new works written in response to the provocation: “Do we all get more right wing in hard times?”

There is a lot on show. Appearances, however, can be deceptive, because despite all this activity – the multiple productions, prizes, plaudits and the applause – there are limitations to political theatre today. These are in part due to certain inherent difficulties with it – it can easily veer into didactic agitprop, which is boring – but there are also more profound problems with the politics at the heart of the works, and the state of affairs that they inadvertently reveal. Taking a closer look at political theatre today – what is on offer, who it is for and what it says – and you find a complacent body of writing that flatters the audience and is devoid of critical thinking.


Theatre Uncut aims to create a conversation about important everyday issues, a laudable purpose, but the work staged is very much a singular view of the world, and notably black and white. The objects of criticism and those who are to blame are cynical politicians, greedy capitalists and racists. One such play is Church Forced To Put Up Gates After Font Is Used As Wash Basin By Migrants, written by the comedian Mark Thomas. It’s about a right-wing newspaper owner who used to publish porn, who is obsessed with depicting immigrants as “shit”, the EU as “shit”, and the BBC as “shit”, and who thinks everyone who works for him is “f****** useless”. He is taken hostage by women in balaclavas who threaten to kill him unless he prints a pro-migration editorial.

If this work contributes anything to political debate, it’s cliché. Because we have heard this before – there is nothing surprising, complex, or nuanced in this play or the others it accompanies. Most of them are cartoon depictions of nasty right wing people and lovely lefties who think the right kind of thoughts. Frankly, most of the plays are just long rants. It is clearly assumed that audiences know better, and are thus reassured about their views and can go home contented having been congratulated. It’s all very safe.

The problem with the pantomime visions of what is effectively the opposition is that they just don’t ring true. I say this not as a right-wing newspaper owner or as a capitalist, but as someone who is interested in working out what is wrong today, and it’s really not as simple as how things are depicted in works such as Church Forced To Put Up Gates After Font Is Used As Wash Basin By Migrants – in which there is a lot of profanity but little insight.

Take another of the plays being performed this week, The Wing by Clara Brennan. One of Brennan’s main characters is Mick, a white working class bloke who reads The Sun (there is a repetitive theme in the plays which depicts tabloids as disgusting and their readers as scum), wraps himself in a “light blood-spattered St George’s flag” and who dislikes immigrants. His daughter, Kerry, is a right-on thinking woman who had had her picture taken for Page 3 in order to later reveal that at the very same time as she was getting her bits out, she was by then already pregnant by a “brown person”.

In The Wing, there is no attempt to persuade those that may not think or feel the same, and no attempt to understand people who do not agree. It also feels out of date, just repeating the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, refusing to address the present. And this is why is has no bite, no power: it doesn’t aim to win hearts or minds, and it doesn’t address the present with any urgency.

The political theatre of the past tried to influence, the political theatre of the present assumes things will never change. What The Wing also and unintentionally shows is the contempt some of these playwrights have for the white working class, the social group habitually blamed for everything, but who were once an important social force in politics.


There is nothing wrong with going to see a dramatisation of opinions with which you agree, but for the work to be effective, to have an impact, it needs to challenge those who come from shared outlooks and try to understand those that don’t. Indeed, some of the best work has done just this – John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular 7:84 theatre company, is a case in point. McGrath always said that political theatre should avoid agitprop and confront the audience, make them feel uncomfortable and question their own positions.

Political theatre today should be a place of riotous debate. Even if the playwrights and producers are singing from the same hymn sheet – and they usually are – there is plenty to discuss and argue about. I am not advocating that people tear each other apart, but suggest that constructive questioning is needed in the cause of clarification.

If we do not take ourselves and audiences out of our comfort zones, and try and persuade others, political theatre will continue as a dampener to debate, a sedative rather than a spur to action. It is time to stop applauding and cheering. This sort of political theatre doesn’t deserve an encore.


Now it is clear that Jenkins is taking particular aim at a movement called Theatre Uncut which was created in 2010

to encourage debate and galvanise action around political issues that affect all of our lives.

According to Lyn GardnerTheatre Uncut isn’t just a performance, it’s an idea: that theatre can be immediately responsive to world events, engender discussion and effect change. Founded in response to public service cuts (in the UK), it suggests that theatre has a part to play in the protest movements that are gathering pace across the world in response to economic downturn and events in Syria. The lead time between a play being written and actually being staged is often more than a year; Theatre Uncut, by contrast, is theatre’s rapid response unit. The plays are written speedily and given just one day of rehearsal: actors often have scripts in hand.


So far Theatre Uncut plays have been performed by over 3,000 people in 17 countries across 4 continents. Performances have happened everywhere from theatres in New York, community centres in Scotland, schools across England, universites in South Africa, on the streets in Spain, on public buses in Mexico, to village church halls in Wales.

Untitled 2_FotorPlaywrights have come from many countries – Syria, Spain, Argentina, Iceland, Greece, UK, USA, Egypt and so on. You can even obtain the plays free of charge for performance, as long as any profits are donated to charity. You can read a review of the latest Theatre Uncut performance, by Susannah Clapp here.


To me, this is how theatre of protest should be happening, and I think Jenkins’ is misguided in her notion that theatre is not causing riotous debate. Maybe it’s because it is just not happening in the way she would like. Mind you, the final paragraph of Clapp’s review above does say the following:

This is an evening of intermittent sizzle. It intrigues rather than ignites. The idea of the project itself is more political than any particular argument. There is no real answer to the question about getting more rightwing: how could there be without statistical evidence? There is no real anti-left persuasion. Neither are there any rallying cries: Gillian Slovo suggested in one post-show discussion that people no longer feel there is a political alternative. Yet the actors bring the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants concentration that the visionary enterprise needs.


I’d suggest you watch the three plays embedded here and make your own mind up.


The Business

Untitled_FotorI have just stumbled across the content for today’s post courtesy of a tweet from Lyn Gardner. It would seem there is an annual careers conference held in the UK, specifically for students who want a career in theatre, theatrecraft. It looks fantastic and really does cover all aspects of theatre making. Whilst it obviously focuses on working in the UK, the video page has a huge list of categories and links to videos that would be useful to anyone, anywhere, thinking of making their career a theatrical one. Take a look below, and click the title links for the relevant videos:


Explore the role of a Director and what it takes to survive in the industry. Hear from professional Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher


See the character emerge — a demonstration of Stage Make up from experienced theatre make up artist Melanie Winning.


Take a look at what is involved in producing a show and find out how to pursue a career as a producer from industry experts.



With professional stage desinger Matt Edwards.


An introduction to working in a props department for a major company


A chance to see how shows are developed from a design concept to a full size on stage production, with advice to those interested in pursuing a career in theatre design.



Be introduced to the craft of playwriting and find out how to survive as a working playwright.


What exactly do directors do? An introduction with professional Director Emma Rivlin.


A unique opportunity to hear how your technical skills can be utilised in the commercial sector.


A look at verbal and visual comedy, focusing on how understanding timing and where to direct the audience’s attention can benefit your ability to direct in every other genre.


Take a peek behind the scenes at two major London theatres.


We talk to some some top directors and producers about why they love their jobs and how they got there.


Exactly what goes on behind the scenes to make your favourite shows happen…


Leading writers talk about how they got to where they are and what it takes to write a play.



How to keep a major London theatre running smoothly and not go mad in the process.


The ins and outs of making sure people know about shows and want to see them.


A great collection of hints and tips from those in the know (or so they say…).


An insight into the work of video designers and how their work contributes to live performance.


A fascinating look at the sound designer and set designer and how the two work together to create incredible atmospheres.


See some of the work that goes into building a major set – before it even gets to the theatre.



Amazing buhend the scenes access as we follow the production manager during a get-in at the London Coliseum.


An informative one-to-one explaining the role of the Stage Designer.


Get the low down on running one of the biggest and busiest venues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.


A profile of Faye Fullerton – a leading costume designer.


Theatre professionals talk about how they took different routes into the undustry.


Insights right from the top of the Theatre World – Nicholas Hytner spills the beans.


The artistic director of the National Theatre puts forward a controversial point of view.


Learn about how to “upskill” for this exciting but demanding profession.



What skills do you need for your chosen profession and where do you get them from?


Do you need to go to University to get ahead in the theatre?


Various theatre professionals explain the decisions, training and lucky coincidences that led them to their jobs.


A popular way to take your first steps in the industry


A brief introduction to the goings on in the wigs and props department of major theatres.


What The Butler Saw

JHaynesPortrait2A quick video post from me today.  The first is a documentary from the BBC about the playwright Joe Orton that TheatreVoice has added to its growing video archive, TheatreVoiceTV. 

Orton lived a short but vibrant life and I was reminded of him recently when one of my performing arts students decided to write an investigation of the history of farce in theatre.

If you would like to know more, there is a fantastic website that has masses about Orton, his life and his plays – Joe Orton Online.




It’s production time at my school, so the posting has slowed down a little bit in the last week or so.  Normal service will be resumed next week.  However, one little item that made me smile was an article two days ago in The New York Times by Dave Itzkoff, entitled The Only Certainty Is That He Won’t Show Up  which is about the right way to say ‘Godot’. The reason why this resonated was that a touring production of Waiting for Godot came through Hong Kong earlier in the year, during a holiday when I was away, and some of my students went along to see it. When school was back in session, and they were eager to share their experiences and thoughts, many of them were pronouncing it god-OH, stressing the final syllable, rather than the first. I chose not to put them right (so I thought) as I was delighted they had gone to see one of the theatre classics under their own steam.

ban-01Now the reason Samuel Beckett’s most famous play is in the news at the moment,  is that two of the most famous stage (and screen) actors in the english-speaking world are about to open in it on Broadway – Sirs Ian McKellan and patrick Stewart – a great reason to spend Christmas in New York, as far as I’m concerned. I can guarantee that they will pronounce GOD-oh!

Here’s the article I mentioned above.

The Only Certainty Is That He Won’t Show Up

The Right Way to Say ‘Godot’

Maybe Godot never appears because everyone is mispronouncing his name.

More than 60 years after the debut of“Waiting for Godot,” Beckett’s absurdist drama about two vagabonds anticipating a mysterious savior, there is much disagreement among directors, actors, critics and scholars on how the name of that elusive title figure should be spoken.

“GOD-oh,” with the accent on the first syllable, is how “it should be pronounced,” said Sean Mathias, the British director of the latest a Broadway revival of “Waiting for Godot,” opening later this month at the Cort Theater.

“It has to be, really,” he said. “There’s no other way to do it.”

But the theater critic John Lahr said that rendering “is too obvious” for the playwright Samuel Beckett, with its suggestion of the Almighty.

“Beckett is more elusive and poetic, and he wouldn’t hit it on the head like that,” said Mr. Lahr, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, who instead advocates for “god-OH,” with the accent on the second syllable.

Georges Borchardt, a literary agent who represented Beckett and continues to represent his literary estate, suggested even a third pronunciation was possible.

“I myself have always pronounced it the French way, with equal emphasis on both syllables,” Mr. Borchardt said in an email.


Mr. Borchardt said he had consulted with Edward Beckett, a nephew of the author, who told him that his uncle pronounced it the same way, and that Edward Beckett could not see “why there should be a correct or incorrect way of pronouncing Godot.”

“As the agents for the estate,” Mr. Borchardt continued, “we do not insist on any particular pronunciation.”

There seems to be nothing to be done to reconcile these competing camps, and productions of “Godot” do what they will. In a video recording, Peter Hall, who directed the first British production, in 1955, pronounces it GOD-oh. An American television production from 1961 starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel uses “god-OH.” Discussing his role in the 2009 Broadway production, Nathan Lane says “GOD-oh.”

“I don’t think there is a mathematical solution to this problem,” said Mark Nixon, the director of the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading in England. Dr. Nixon said he believed the name was correctly pronounced with a stressed first syllable. But, he said, “I don’t feel strongly in the sense that I would correct somebody who said it differently.” Still, he did not dismiss the Godot question as a trivial issue. “Nothing’s trivial when it comes to Beckett,” he said.

The debate would surely please Beckett, an Irish author who originally wrote “Waiting for Godot” in French before translating it into English, and whose work embraced ambiguity and resisted easy interpretation. As this Nobel laureate wrote, “no symbols where none intended,” but he kept his intentions mysterious and seemed to leave symbols everywhere. The pronunciation of Godot, like the name itself, seems pregnant with meaning, yet ambiguous.

One might think that Beckett’s own writing would plainly reveal his wishes, but, gosh, no.

According to “The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett” (Grove Press), when “Waiting for Godot” was performed in the 1980s by the San Quentin Drama Workshop, Beckett sought “to counter the natural American tendency to stress the second syllable” and asked his actors “consciously to pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable instead.”

Dr. Nixon said that recordings of the author’s voice are extremely rare — “only about four, or four and a half, are in existence.”

“I’ve heard all of them,” Dr. Nixon said, “and on none of those recordings does he use the word Godot. So, unfortunately, that’s not a route we can take.”

The French-looking name Godot may seem to call for a French pronunciation. But in an English-language production, speaking Godot without stressing either syllable “would be similar to saying ‘Paree’ for Paris,” explained the actor Adrian Dunbar, an experienced Beckett performer.

“Although not incorrect,” he said, “it does sound a little, shall we say, faux.”

There is no definitive origin story for the name Godot, either. It may be Beckett’s reference to the French bicyclist Roger Godeau or to French slang words for boots, a pair of which feature prominently in the play.

Mr. Lahr rejected the interpretation that Godot was simply a stand-in for God, an idea he said was too easily conjured up by the pronunciation GOD-oh.

When his father, the actor Bert Lahr, played Estragon in the original American productions of “Waiting for Godot,” Mr. Lahr said “god-OH” was used.

“It keeps it open-ended and more painful, almost, as if there’s nothing out there,” Mr. Lahr said. “Which there isn’t, in Beckett’s vision.”

And for American ears, the GOD-oh pronunciation can sound affected, and can take some getting used to.

Mr. Mathias, whose production of “Waiting for Godot” was originally staged in the West End of London, said that when it transferred to New York, “we had to train everybody” to embrace this pronunciation.


“Could you imagine the poor crew?” Mr. Mathias asked cheekily. “Anybody who says ‘god-OH,’ I say, ‘Excuse me? What’s that? We’re not doing that play.’ Poor things.”

Shane Baker, who translated “Waiting for Godot” into Yiddish, said that actors in this version of the play said “god-OH” because “that’s how it’s known in America.”

“I was the translator,” said Mr. Baker, who also played Vladimir in the New Yiddish Rep production at the Castillo Theater in Manhattan. “But the producer and director wanted god-OH, so there you have it.”

“We did it wrong,” he said. “Look, I had other battles I had to fight.”

Mr. Baker added that, over the years, “Waiting for Godot” had become part of “the people’s imagination.” It has been paid tribute in films like “Waiting for Guffman,” and the subject of a “Sesame Street” parody, “Waiting for Elmo.”

Saying “god-OH,” he said, has become part of the vernacular, and it is too late to talk audiences out of it.

“The rest of the play is jarring enough,” Mr. Baker said. “Why upset them?”

Playing With Words

This week I have been to see (with lots of students) A Clockwork Orange, an adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novella, staged by UK-based company, Action To The Word. Nothing unusual in that, of course, but it did raise a number of questions for me and my students. But before I go any further have a look as these two videos to put the post in context:



Firstly I should say that I did enjoy it. It was a great attempt to put something on stage that would otherwise be difficult to do, simply because the sheer level of ultra-violence and sexual violence in the narrative. Secondly, I have to say this as it has a bearing on what I am about to write, I was sitting in the gods (gallery) and had forgotten my glasses, so may have missed a few subtleties.

Clockwork Orange - Action to the Word

This production is an all male one. Single gender companies and casts are very much in vogue at the moment, allowing directors to explore narrative themes that are perhaps not foremost in an original work. In essence I have no problem with this – this is theatre at its most dynamic – theatre as a vehicle to reflect what is interesting to the director and company, and even as a mirror to contemporary societal shifts and passions. However, I was left wondering whether, when you stray away too far from a writer’s original intent, are you indeed putting on, in this case, A Clockwork Orange or a different play altogether.

In her programme/play bill notes, Alexandra Spencer-Jones, the plays director says

My company was rehearsing Romeo and Juliet [when] I decided to bring A Clockwork Orange to the stage……People think of R & J as a beautiful and tragic love story….for me it is much more than that….my main interest came into the role of Romeo ‘as a man’ upholding male responsibility when his friend Mercutio is killed and becoming (sadly) what he hates – a Montague fighter. With this in mind I spent much time concentrating on the fights and the role of testosterone in Shakespeare. Romeo – an angel with rage just under the skin. In the same actor who was in the role at the time, I found this storage balance – can the audience love someone they are scared of, sympathise with a villain – cry for him when he suffers. I was desperate to find out and A Clockwork Orange provided such a character and such a story to experiment.

Clockwork Orange - Action to the Word

It was from this concept, and the fact that I primarily direct men in the Shakespeare company, that I decided to workshop the piece as all male. Suddenly it was to a piece about women being objectified and raped, it was a piece about power and manipulation of all people, dictatorship and youth.

And I suppose this is what I saw this week. The narrative is indeed transformed, but into one that has blunt homoerotic overtones that don’t exist in Burgess’ original and therefore I have to question whether what we watched should still be ‘sold’ as A Clockwork Orange.

Clockwork Orange - Action to the WordAs I said earlier, I appreciated the piece and there were some excellent moments. But should a director be able to take way a central theme, such as the objectification of women, and claim they are staging the same play? I have subsequently had this conversation with some friends and students and we came to no real conclusion….seemingly just left with a nagging doubt that we had seen something other than that which we were expecting.

This also led to some self-examination on my part. As a theatre maker I like taking an original work and exploring certain themes in more depth while relegating others in terms of importance. A few years ago I staged a version of Lord of the Flies which did just this. I have never really thought about the proprietary nature of doing this as part of the creative process, but having experienced what I have this week, it has made question myself a little.

Another question that this particular production raised for me was whether, when one sees a physical theatre re-interpretation or re-imagining of a novel, is there a need to have read the original to make sense of the new work? Do you need to hold on to the depths and nuances of the novel in order to give depth and nuance to the new work? In this case, the reaction of my students would seem to indicate yes. Of course any adaptation from one form to another takes on this conundrum, whether it is from book to stage or screen, but it is a question worth considering I feel.

"A Clockwork Orange"

The other major question that was raised for me was one of venue choice. Here in Hong Kong, the piece was staged in the Lyric Theatre, a 1200 seater, traditional space. Thankfully we have a handful of new production companies in the city who are increasingly bringing in significant and worthy pieces. However, I was left feeling that the decision to put this particular production onto one of the two main stages we have in the city was a mistake. This was confirmed when I started to read the reviews of the original stagings in the UK. The venues there were small and intimate – 150 seaters or so.  This made sense of the reviews for me – you can read a couple here and here – where the critic had clearly had a very experience to my own. The intent behind the direction was clearly to create a piece of theatre that was visceral and arresting, but when you are sat a long way from the stage, this is lost – as it was for us. A shame, as I think, especially given that the audience in the stalls was sparse and the four international schools in attendance seemed to be crammed in to the gallery and balcony. This fact could of course lead to a whole new post about theatre pricing and the real value given by production companies to fostering the next generation of theatre goers…..but that one is for another day.

It Does Matter

This post is a milestone for Theatre Room – the 200th since I started it, 18 months ago. So it seems only fitting that the post has come about after an intelligent, heartening, occasionally saddening conversation yesterday, with my final year Theatre Arts students. I can’t quite remember how we got started, but in essence we were discussing the value of a theatre arts eduction and more generally the need for arts in society.  Now this particular group of young people are inspirational at the best of times, but when they started to list what they felt they had learned from the course – the skills (non-theatre related), the cultural understanding, the ability for arts to impact the world, and so on – I was humbled. They hadn’t been indoctrinated by my (well, not much) and had discovered and understood all this themselves. I am a proud man.

Howard Shalwitz

Howard Shalwitz

During the course of the discussion articles and videos were shared and this was one that touched a nerve for all of us – encapsulating what we talking about. It is from a post on theatrewashington entitled 7 Reasons Why Theatre Makes Our Lives Better. It is an extract from a speech, actually more of a treatise,  given by Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, from Washington D.C., a fund-raiding event in 2011..


As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching, and finally to theatre — not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother’s perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theatre, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind? I guess this conundrum has stuck with me, because as recently as this past winter I made a list of seven reasons why theatre matters and I’d like to share them with you briefly tonight.

First, theatre does no harm. Theatre is one of those human activities that doesn’t really hurt anyone or anything (except for its carbon footprint — but let’s ignore that for now). While we’re engaged in making or attending theatre, or any of the arts for that matter, we are not engaged in war, persecution, crime, wife-beating, drinking, pornography, or any of the social or personal vices we could be engaged in instead. For this reason alone, the more time and energy we as a society devote to theatre and the arts, the better off we will be.

Second, theatre is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need — one might call it an instinct — to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor.. We see this instinct expressed in children when they act out real or imagined characters and events. We have evidence of theatre-like rituals in some of the oldest human societies, long before the foundations of Western theatre in Ancient Greece. So theatre matters, in essence, because we can’t help it. It’s part of what makes us human.


Third, theatre brings people together. For a performance to happen, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand or more people need to gather in one place for a couple of hours, and share together in witnessing and contemplating an event that may be beautiful, funny, moving, thought-provoking, or hopefully at least diverting. And in an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters.

Fourth, theatre models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life, and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument, and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be. When we watch a play, we learn what happens when conflicts don’t get resolved, and what happens when they do. We develop our faculty for imagining the outcomes of various choices we might make in our personal lives and our political lives. It’s not surprising that, in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid; in Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy. If our own representatives and senators in Washington went to the theatre more often, I suspect we’d all be better off.

Fifth, both the making of theatre and attending of theatre contribute to education and literacy. Watching the characters talk back and forth in the theatre is tricky; it requires sharp attention, quick mental shifts, and nimble language skills. It teaches us about human motivation and psychology. In historical plays we get lessons in leadership and government. In contemporary plays, we learn about people and cultures in different parts or our own country or in other countries. Studies have shown that students who participate in theatre do better in school. Making plays together also draws kids out of their shells and helps them learn to socialize in a productive and healthy way.

Sixth, theatre as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. We’ve seen this quite clearly in our own city. You can look at the role that the Studio Theatre played along the 14th Street corridor, or Shakespeare Theatre along Seventh Street, or Woolly in both these neighborhoods, or Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, the Atlas along H Street, or the new Arena Stage along the waterfront. As each of these theatres opened, new audiences started flooding in, new restaurants opened, jobs were created, the city improved the sidewalks, and neighborhoods that were once grim and forbidding became vibrant hubs of activity. And this pattern has been repeated in cities across the United States and around the world.

Finally, the seventh way that theatre matters — and this one applies to some kinds of theatre more than others — is that it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. The most vivid example of this I’ve ever experienced was during a post-show discussion at Woolly Mammoth when a woman said that one of our plays made her and her husband decide that they had a serious problem in their marriage and needed to go for counseling; and she was pleased to report that they were still together and much happier as a result. Now, I’ll admit, I don’t hear things like this every day. But speaking more generally isn’t this one of the things we go to the theatre for, to measure our own lives against the lives we see depicted on the stage, to imagine what it would be like if we had those lives instead? And isn’t it a very short step from there to saying, gee, maybe there’s something I should change about my own life? And it may have nothing to do with the message that the playwright wanted to deliver! Maybe the play is about a fierce battle over a family dinner that breaks the family apart over irreconcilable political divisions — but maybe you watch the play and say, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to at least have a family dinner once in a while, and so you decide to plan one for next month.

So, those are my seven ways that theatre matters: it does no harm, expresses a basic human instinct, brings people together, models democratic discourse, contributes to education and literary, sparks economic revitalization, and influences how we think and feel about our own lives.

With one exception, the comments posted about the article are worth a read too. One of the commenters even goes as far as adding an 8th reason, which particularly resonates with me:

Theatre helps us to understand the lives of others on a visceral, rather than intellectual, level……. theatre expands our connection to the larger world, and our empathy for lives lived differently from our own.

I couldn’t agree more.

To finish I share a video interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) making a strong case for theatre’s role in modern society.


You Spin Me Right, Right Round

Before you read what I’m writing about today, take a minute to watch this video:


I often write about theatre and technology, but this is something else.  This amazing piece of mechanics creates illusion in a very different way. The following article, written by Nina Caplin in The Telegraph explains it all.

Inside the Olivier’s drum revolve

It’s the mechanical beast that allows the Olivier’s actors to be spun round invisibly – and to rise miraculously from the depths. But what’s it like being in the drum revolve’s jaws?

After World War II, when a National Theatre finally became more than an excellent idea that nobody wanted to pay for, the architect Denys Lasdun was appointed to design the new theatre on the South Bank. The company, under Laurence Olivier, was up and running by 1963 but their purpose-built home took rather longer, and the most revolutionary (in every sense) part of it took longer still. The Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve is an extraordinary, five-storey, computer-operated double lift contraption that enables the stage to be lowered through the floor and spun around.

The drum revolve in action, rising up with a cork screw action

The drum revolve in action, rising up with a cork screw action

And, because it’s split into two, operators can swap one half for the other without, in theory, the audience suspecting a thing. It is complicated, expensive and mechanically flawed, but it speaks of the kind of dramatic ambition a national theatre should have – and when it is cleverly used, the results can be amazing. The clever usage took a while, though. The entire building is wrapped around the drum’s contraption, or as Di Willmott, production manager on 2011’s Emperor & Galilean, puts it, “the whole mechanism is inside a big baked bean tin”. The two semicircular elevators, known as Red and Blue, weigh 25 tonnes each, plus 25 tonnes of counterweight. It must have been a brave actor prepared to rise up from the basement to the Olivier stage on a 100-foot lift operated by a 1970s computer.

The control panel and operator of the National Theatre's drum revolve

The control panel and operator of the National Theatre’s drum revolve

And in fact, even though the National Theatre building opened in 1976, it was 1988, and Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, directed by Howard Davies with a set by William Dudley, that – in the words of then-Director of the NT Richard Eyre – made sense of the Olivier revolve for the first time. Shortly after it opened, Eyre met with Lasdun and told him that despite admiring the NT building and getting a thrill out its public spaces, he found the Olivier a difficult theatre to present plays in, “Which,” said Eyre, “I suppose is a bit like saying that you have a watering can that doesn’t hold water.” Lasdun called him a barbarian. Willmott took me backstage, during Emperor & Galilean, to see the beast in its lair. We descended seemingly endless steps, in the dark (well, Willmott had a torch), to find a lone man – show operator Simon Nott – shifting a series of levers in front of a screen. The raising and lowering and rotating is his job; everything must be in just the right place, so that doors line up for actors to enter and leave and scenery to be wheeled in or out. Everything should happen quietly, although until recently that wasn’t the case: ‘When it starts going around,’ said Nott, ‘you can’t hear yourself think.’ The metal tracks of the revolve weren’t quite perfectly round, and loud music was required to drown out the noise of its motion. But that, Sacha Milroy tells me now, has been fixed. Milroy was Production Manager on His Dark Materials, the vastly ambitious adaptation of Philip Pullman’s vastly ambitious trilogy; she is now, perhaps not coincidentally, PM of the entire theatre.

The National Theatre's drum revolve stage in action

The National Theatre’s drum revolve stage in action

Backstage, I stood at the base of the incredible golden gates from the Emperor and Galilean set and craned up. It’s all right this way, Willmott said, but the other way round is harder: ‘The first time you look down and see the floor 100ft away it’s very frightening. But now I’ve done it hundreds of times.’ Ben Wright, an actor in His Dark Materials, described feeling daunted by its size, but added: ‘It’s a great feeling when it’s moving, you’re going up 20ft into air then back down again.’ His co-star, Inika Leigh-Wright, was less robust: ‘You can hear everything going on above you and it sounds 20 times louder than it actually is and it’s quite scary.’

The view from inside the National Theatre's drum revolve

The view from inside the National Theatre’s drum revolve

As the actors floated up and down during that show, more prosaic work went on below: Milroy describes the 6-metre space that they lowered, re-dressed, exchanging furniture and snapping panels on and off, then raised as an entirely different room; critics talked of witches and bears on the stage’s upper regions and Oxford colleges rising from its lower depths. Even those who didn’t love the show marvelled at the design. As well they might: with the exception of Vienna’s Burgtheater, there is nothing like the drum revolve in Europe. So, why isn’t it used – and talked about – more? Partly, because it’s so expensive: ‘It eats money,’ says Milroy, ‘and it’s hard to get your head around – it’s quite cumbersome, so you need to understand the nuances and use it in a subtle way.’ Not easy with a contraption that weighs 100 tonnes. ‘An awful lot of designers are quite terrified of the logistics and the complications,’ says Milroy – and in fact Giles Cadle, who designed His Dark Materials, worked on the show for two years.

The drum revolve in action during 'War Horse'

The drum revolve in action during ‘War Horse’