Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Seeing the show. Or rather, trying to think about it.

There was a time in my life when I sat on the boards of theatre companies. These were well run endeavours, on the whole, gifted in their art and good with their money. Everything went well with their finances until the companies invariably did the foolish thing: and put on a show.
Then all hell broke loose, financially. After a while it became quite obvious that as a responsible board member I really should have been advising these theatre companies not to put on plays at all. The sums did not add up.
This had artistic consequences too. As a writer, there was a time at first when I was just so surprised and delighted to have my work put on at all. But then I began to see that what was always happening was that I would be working with immensely gifted and dedicated people who never had quite enough time to rehearse.
So the play would open without ever being truly ready. And then it would run for 3-4 weeks, and the actors would settle, and just at the moment when it was beginning to be really ready to be seen: it would close.
Close without fulfilling its artistic potential. Close without reaching a fraction of the audiences who could enjoy it.
Close without reaping a fraction of the benefits that should have come back to the company after all the love and care and attention and skill that had been invested in it.
Close without having had a proper chance to establish itself in the repertoire or find its proper place in the world.
Close: and then disappear for ever.
It's an intensely wasteful and frustrating process.
My last play in a subsidised theatre, THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, played to 95% of audience capacity and completely sold out for the last week of its ridiculously short run.
I do not want to get into recriminations, but I simply do not understand why a theatre should  decide to turn its back on such a success and choose not to make more of it.
And it is important to keep saying that theatre is a labour intensive craft trying to operate in a capital intensive world. Consequently it is very good at making money for everyone around it but, often through no fault of its own, pretty rubbish at making money for itself. In Edinburgh perhaps we are more familiar with this phenomenon than most; each year the Festival generates astonishing income for our city. And generally off the unpaid labour of its performers.
And all this ignores the immense non-financial benefits it brings.
Theatre needs subsidy. It always has. And that has been true since its very beginnings in the ancient world.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS would never have been written without subsidy. Without subsidy I would never have learnt my craft. Nor would its director, designers, stage crew and actors.
And yet. And yet...
The show is going on without public subsidy. Bruce McKinnon, the producer, has managed to raise an astonishingly substantial sum of money to mount it. Money invested with a reasonable hope of getting a good return. And, being a man of vision, energy, imagination and courage, he has deployed all his skills to ensure his investors receive it. And his artists too.
A crucial part of this process is the creation of a good product. And the result of that is that the play has, almost for the very first time, been properly rehearsed, played in, re-mounted and re-rehearsed.
The script has had the chance to be tweaked. I am (for once) satisfied with (almost) every line. Direction, design, lighting,  stage management: for once, all this beautiful skilled work is working properly together and in its right place.
It looks beautiful. It sounds beautiful.
The actors are at home in the theatre. They are now able to move towards the authority and command they and the play and the audience all deserve.
This moves me profoundly and fills me with deep pride.
It's the press night tonight.
And for once I have no fear of it.
They will say what they like; I know we have created something very special. We all do.
And our audiences know it too.

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