Written by Daz Gale
There seem to be two different waves moving in theatre at the moment. On one side, you have people doing what they can to make it more accessible in every meaning of the word, so that it can be for everyone in all different walks of life. Simultaneously, there is a group of people who seem determined to keep theatre for the select few, seeing no problem with the gatekeeping aspect this might have. Certain things that have happened in recent weeks have frustrated me and I wanted to write a little bit about why this attitude is so damaging and why people in this group should get with the times and accept that theatre should be for everyone. I won’t be mentioning any names or publications individually but if you’ve seen what I’ve seen on social media, it won’t be hard to read between the lines.
I face elitism in theatre in different ways – as a theatre lover and as a theatre reviewer. I will regularly get told my views are irrelevant or don’t matter as I am just a blogger with repeat offenders disregarding me as somebody who loves everything. What you may not see is what happens on the other side of things when the real snobbish attitudes come out. If I have ever posted a less than favourable review (it does happen from time to time, you know) I am told without irony (and rather condescendingly) that I am wrong. When I mention that theatre is subjective and there isn’t such thing as right or wrong in reviews, just a difference of opinion, I get chastised with them doubling down that I am, in actual fact, wrong. There is the patronising way I can be told I didn’t understand the content which again speaks of a divide in the industry with some seeing themselves as more important than others. Maybe they are, but there is also such a thing as respecting somebody else for their opinions, no matter how polar opposite these are to yours.
There was a time when picking up a newspaper was the only way to read reviews on shows. Now it is far more varied. Some may say that anyone can become a reviewer these days – give them a blog and a social media profile and there they are. And what is so wrong with that? To suggest you need to have a journalism degree or have jumped through any number of hurdles before you are able to post a review is elitism in its purest form. I started this website with no experience and a lot of passion, and you know what? That’s enough. The more voices we have in the industry, the better. Particularly, the more diverse voices we have. You can never have too much – perhaps stop worrying about what other people are doing and worry more about your own output?
I could talk at length about the elitism I see in certain theatre critics and the arts in general, but this is so much bigger than me and the increasing number of reviewers who are trying to promote the industry, usually alongside a day job. The bigger picture is the elitism and gatekeeping that are still sadly so prevalent in the industry in many forms.
In recent months, a certain newspaper has posted various articles not just chastising audience behaviour (which is a different subject entirely) but actually policing it in a high feat of arrogance. First there was an article expressing their annoyance with the use of standing ovations in theatre and insisting they stop, then they even brought their own rules out for people to follow, adding to the mix to stop laughing so much and to stop clapping after every song – something I hope directors listen to if their intent was to get applause after every number, as so many musicals strive to do. If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, they then proceeded to publish an article debating if audiences should boo more when they dislike a show. For me, all of this combined speaks to an elitist nature who seem content with gatekeeping an industry that has already moved away from them and just puts a whole lot of unnecessary negativity on the industry. While I respect anyone and everyone who reviews shows, there is nothing wrong with audiences having a good time and if that doesn’t fit in with what you perceive to be the correct way to show an appropriate amount of enjoyment, maybe you’re the problem? Or maybe you just need to remove that proverbial stick…
It’s not just critics who can at times dictate what is and isn’t acceptable. There are also a small number of theatregoers who bemoan a certain type of show, most commonly musicals. Whether it’s their unanimous dislike for ALL jukebox musicals, even if they may have only seen one or two themselves or a distaste for musicals adapted from movies, admittedly of which there is a large number in recent years. Tainting them all with the same brush comes across as an ignorant approach to me. You may talk about a lack of originality in musical theatre, but when a brand new musical does come along, do these people always take the opportunity to see it or does it go unnoticed? While this isn’t always the case, it is a trend I have seen recently, most notably when new musicals struggled to fill the tiny Studio space at The Other Palace while a heavy hitter played the main space.
I will always say “the beauty of theatre is how subjective it is” until I am blue in the face, and a situation like this is the perfect example of that. While you might not like a certain type of musical, other people very clearly to. To dismiss it all as poor because it is not to your personal taste is an arrogant approach. As a reviewer and a theatre lover, I never think my opinion is fact. I welcome differing opinions and love someone telling me they got something different out of a show than I did myself. After all, it would be boring if we all loved and hated the same things. There is also the obvious statement that shows need to sell and familiar titles such as movie adaptations and jukebox musicals are a great way to ensure bums-on-seats. These shows can appeal to a wider variety of audience members, who might not ordinarily go to the theatre. To exclude them because of your own opinion on what is right and wrong makes the industry inaccessible and that should never be the case.
The argument of "theatre etiquette" (which in itself can feel an outdated term) will inevitably pop up. People should be free to enjoy the show they have paid to see as should every other person who is in attendance. If one person feels their enjoyment should come at the expense of everyone else's, that in itself is a problem. I'm not saying to be like Vanessa Feltz and sing along to Les Miserables but everybody deserves the chance to experience theatre. The key here is for everybody to be respectful of everyone else - a point that rings true for the other elitist elements I have mentioned here.
There was always an element of classism in theatre. Certain theatres still have different entrances for the more expensive seats and the Gods up high, so as to prevent the elite and affluent having to hobnob with the commonfolk. There also never used to be electricity, the Internet or Taylor Swift. Things change and as such, people should change with them. Some people may envision a certain type of person that should go to the theatre - how they look, how they dress, who they represent. But that attitude has no place in today's society. Theatre should be for everyone, with no exceptions. Everybody deserves the escapism and beauty a good night at the theatre can offer, and nobody has any right to dictate who should and shouldn't attend, nor should they tell them how to feel. If you do truly feel like theatre should remain for the select few, you are most definitely the problem. Open your eyes and welcome to 2024. The world is a disaster zone but theatre is still a much needed breath of fresh air. The only elitism I want to see in theatre is an elite show, hopefully one that is accessible to all.
Thanks for reading my ramble. See you in the theatre!