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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

How to Get People to Watch Verse Drama

Don't tell 'em.

Yup, that's about it.  Write the play, stage the play, make sure it's good and don't tell anyone (beyond the cast - they might not notice unless you do) that it is written in verse.  Unless it's written in rhyming couplets (which in English is a hiding to nothing) then 99% of the audience won't notice.  To call your play a verse drama is to label yourself as an elitist arty wanker, regardless as to whether you are, and you won't get a very broad base for your audience.

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Which leads me onto issues to do with audiences rather well.  The arts editor at the BBC said something a bit foolish... not because what he said was wrong, that is up for debate, but it wasn't very well contextualised.  Here is a report about what he said on the Guardian website - the comments section is quite interesting for once.  Basically he seemed to say that subsidy is all wrong because in all the years of the Arts Council the numbers of poor people watching art hasn't increased.  And, to make matters worse, he weighted his arguments about elitism against ballet, opera - the usual suspects, as it were - rather than other, more successful art forms.  This is a simplification, but that's how it came across, which is all that matters here.
Now, on one level, he has a point.  We have failed as a nation to embrace art, even though routes to it are greater than ever.  The verdict on Verse Drama is a good example.  Nothing puts the backs up of those who don't earn much money more than something that smells of arty wank.  Even from my gilded position in the middle of the middle classes, the whiff of suspect wankery is something that I avoid like the plague in my own work - as I also do with cliched expressions.  This is the national mood.  High art is for wealthy people, even though I suspect the majority of wealthy people actually can't stand high art either, especially all that Opera they're supposed to always be watching.
Of course, I reject this cultural instinct because I know it is irrational.  High and low are pretty mixed concepts these days (if you accept the concept at all) and access to work is greater than ever.  Attendance to art galleries rocketed up when free entrance was introduced, and though the numbers of the poor did not go up as much as the middle classes, they did increase and that is a start.  It takes time for interest in free art to achieve currency (free stuff is inherently untrustworthy) and I don't think we've actually been very good at appealing art to anyone outside the middle class bracket until fairly recently, the last decade or two, so real change will take time.  Or not.  Perhaps the poor are just not worth the effort.  Perhaps we should just cull them now; if they don't want our ballet then they're obviously sub-human.
Also, these institutions of art are middle class in their appeal and inherently hard work.  Our more wired in society wants art that fits around them, not the institution.  I take in a lot about culture from the internet, vicariously I admit, primarily because I live in the middle of nowhere.  But there are people who prefer that because that's how they like to see art.  Taking in beauty without a numb bum or tired legs or the extra effort that the physicality of some arts institutions have to impose because they are solid.  This doesn't, however, negate the importance of these institutions, because they are the loadstone's to culture, they are the hubs around which the virtual editions orbit.
There is also a deleterious argument here about money, looking at all things in terms of money.  Now, a body like the Arts Council must be able to justify itself to the government, to appear to give value for money, because this is how everything is justified to the tax payer, fair do's.  However, if you only look at the money then you are missing to point about art.  Same point applies to issues of access.
Arts subsidy is about balancing out the ecology of art - maintaining standards in the non-commercial sector, training artists and giving opportunities for artistic risk which the commercial sector will not uphold.  Now, the commercial sector will, therefore, benefit from the training this gives for those people who cross between the two (i.e. basically most artists, and by proxy, all) and the commercial sector is then free to use this talent to cater to the mass audience that the subsidised sector doesn't.  They can go for mass appeal, producing work that is openly populist and, if necessary, catering to the lowest common denominator.  This isn't an attack on the lowest common denominator, the language is loaded but it isn't, people WANT art that is easy as well as hard.  The poor, having by definition less money, do not gamble their money on high art that will be a. hard work, b. not guaranteed to be any good and c. which there is a risk they might not get it (even though, being human, they probably would - but perhaps we should cull the stupid with the poor while we're at it?).  The poor, needing to invest their money wisely on a relatively guaranteed good night out, will go to a pop concert, a musical, something on ice - because it's easy and after a long day it is an escape.
That isn't to say that sometimes they will not go to high art, but it's an occasional gamble, not a way of life.  We of the comfortably off (and I should add I'm not actually comfortably off, I'm just from a family of comfortably off, comfortably off by proxy) will take that gamble more often because we can and because we can it has become a habit.  So the issue here isn't access, it's about a habit of art.
AND THIS is I think where Will Gompertz was going with his argument.  We should be looking at ways to subsidise audiences as well as artists - or subsidise audiences to help generate revenue for artists.  And in principle I totally agree.  This has worked for art galleries (though there is still a LONG way to go) but for my sphere of work, the theatre, it isn't particularly practical.  Unless we develop and Orwellian strategy to get everyone who books a ticket to bring their tax return and see how much of their ticket is to be subsidised by the tax payer, I don't see how you could implement it.
And artists should be engaged not just with what they want to do, but also with what their audiences want.  Okay, in todays marketplace audiences are fragmented, we choose who we sell our work to, but to only pick the middle class intelligencia all the time is a dangerous law of diminishing returns.  You don't have to compromise on the work either, for once you have an audience in the room so long as the work is good they will tend to go with it.  (Though this isn't an invitation to lie in your publicity.)  So, whilst you could argue my show The Fantasy Terrorist Variations is ultimately aimed at middle class types (I hope not, but it will mostly appeal there we think, though it is accessable to everyone) my show Ghost Storyteller is aimed at everyone.  It has a clear title and clear messages - i.e. it's a bit funny.  Now, this should bring in a broader audience, perhaps even a less middle class audience - but that doesn't mean the show itself compromises for a second in its form or aims.  You can do both.

And while we're on the subject of the show... Go on - book tickets NOW!  Here, click HERE, to get them.


Milk Bottle Productions Presents...
Ghost Storyteller
Comic Ghost Stories Written and Performed by Robert Crighton

Returning this Autumn / Winter following the success of the run last year!  Ghost Storyteller is a lightly comic selection of ghost stories written and performed by award-winning writer and performer Robert Crighton. 
From the ghosts of empty houses, to the personal ghosts we carry around us, this collection is a mixture of the fantastic and the “real”: including the tale of a poltergeist hamster and the pub that cried ghost.

Running Tuesday to Sunday from 27th November 2012 to 6th January 2013
Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm – Doors Open at 7.15pm
Sundays at 6pm – Doors Open at 5.45pm
No performances on Mondays, Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Years Day
Tickets: £12 / £10 concessions
Barons Court Theatre, “The Curtain’s Up”, 28A Comeragh Road W14 9HR
Nearest Tube:  Barons Court (Piccadilly/District Lines)

Box Office:  0844 8700 887
(Telephone box office hours 9.00am – 7.00pm Mondays –Fridays (excluding Bank Holidays) and 9.00am – 5.00pm on Saturdays.)


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