By Harry Bower
Fan communities in the world of theatre are often seen as one of society’s oddities. Only last week were musical theatre fandoms described as ‘peculiarly obsessive’ in a national newspaper, despite fans of sporting teams or successful musicians demonstrating equal levels of fervour. In truth, only one year ago, I probably would have agreed with the author of that piece, somewhat perplexed at a group of otherwise unconnected people spending all their time and money attending the same show over and over, meeting the cast and making friends with each other. I certainly would have passed somewhat condescending judgement.
Then, this year, something equally peculiar happened in my life. I’ve become someone who will happily see the same show three times in a week, meet the cast at the stage door, collect quirky bits of fan art; heck, I even dressed up as one of the characters and attended a cosplay meetup at the show itself, something I would have deemed completely impossible just twelve months ago. Probably best not to talk about the videos I made about a fictional war over a body part (yes, really). For those who know me, I am, obviously, talking about Operation Mincemeat. I am a proud #Mincefluencer, self-named because of our collective propensity to introduce others to the show, having seen the show almost twenty times in six months. And now, finaly, I ‘get’ it.
Above: A Newsies fan meetup at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, Wembley (credit: @tshirtsies and @itsrosiesturn)
For those who might be less well versed in the term ‘fandom’, in the context of theatre it is a community of fans of a particular show. Generally, those fans have some sort of online forum, be it Twitter, Reddit, or Discord, where they discuss and debate the show. In the more active communities and with a production of the show running, meetups and events are common, with fan art and cosplay (short for costume play) playing equal parts. Some communities have their own distinct elements and the size of the show and fanbase, geographical spread of fans, and length of show run, naturally dictates the level of activity.
In preparation for this article, I reached out to the thriving world of Theatre Twitter, asking for testimonials of experiences about fandoms and what they mean to people. The responses I received were overwhelming and emotional in equal measure. In fact, I delayed writing this piece because I wanted to read and consider each in detail. Fans reached out from all sorts of shows, from giant global hits like Moulin Rouge, Heathers, Newsies, Back To The Future and Come From Away, to fringe and cult favourites like The View UpStairs, Phantom Peak, and of course Operation Mincemeat.
Most responses offered perhaps predictable reflections. After all, history is full of likeminded people finding ways to spend time together. Some spoke of making new friends in an increasingly digital era where face to face meetings are harder to come by, others of simply finding someone to accompany them to the theatre for their favourite show. But what struck a chord with me is how honest everyone was about their personal journeys which are framed by these fan communities. I read stories of people’s lives being dramatically changed for the better by finding love and support from others at a time when all else seemed lost, tales of young adults coming to terms with who they are as a person with the help of art and being held up by those around them. A lot of these stories are dominated by wonderful tales of queer awakening and neurodivergent acceptance or unmasking, and there are equally urgent testimonials including an ICU worker searching for an escape from grief stricken pandemic crisis, which had me contemplating the importance of these communities.
Above: The cast of Newsies wearing fan-made T-Shirts and sharing their thanks on social media (credit: @tshirtsies and @itsrosiesturn)
In a conversation with Daz Gale, the founder of All That Dazzles, he shared his thoughts on why community is so important: “Community is the lifeblood of theatre. Sharing experiences can elevate your evening and make it all the more special. Sometimes our non-theatre friends may fail to understand what it is about the art we love so much. I remember a friend once asking why I waste money seeing shows when I could spend it at the pub instead. Before I started the website, I had no theatre friends and used to look on at people socialising in the theatre with envy. I'm thankful now to have a community which truly enriches my life”.
The enrichment of life comes up so many times when you ask people about their fandom. As one contributor put it, friendships formed are immediately so much deeper because of the mutual love for a show. It’s about sharing the joy in your life. That’s not to mention the alleviation community gives us from the seemingly suffocating loneliness we can all feel when it seems we don’t fit in somewhere.
As I once did, you may question why someone feels the need to attend the same show three times in a week. What you probably won’t see, is the three separate group of friends waiting at stage door afterwards. The sense of acceptance a person feels when seen as their authentic self by those around them, or the growth in confidence in someone when acknowledged by someone they admire, be it a cast member, creative, or friend. There is an overwhelming sense of belonging which permeates every aspect of life online when you craft your timeline echo chamber (sorry to anyone who has seen Mincemeat only once and now has my tweets on their ‘for you’ tab!)
There can be challenges with passionate people from all different backgrounds and with different social contexts coming together to debate the very thing they love. There is bound to be difference in opinion, personalities which clash, and inevitable disagreement. In fact almost everyone I spoke to revealed at least one experience of toxicity or negativity connected to their fandom. It’s also this which tends to give theatre communities a bit of a bad rep, it seems. Obsession with cast members or specific themes in the show can be dangerous and breed a culture of gatekeeping or bullying. Thankfully in all the testimonials it was made clear that this is typically a rare occurrence and/or limited to a small number of people. Like anything in life, there will always be those who take things too far or struggle to understand boundaries. The good, though, far outweighs the bad.
Above: #OperationInterestingMan saw over 80 Operation Mincemeat fans surprise the cast in cosplay (credit: Avalon UK and Operation Mincemeat)
It’s always been commonplace for cast members to interact with fans at the stage door, and while this is at cast discretion and is always a privilege rather than a right, social media has extended that stage door interaction online, even to those not present at the show. The way in which shows themselves engage with fandoms is changing, and changing dramatically, at pace. No longer does a fandom exist independently of a show’s PR or marketing strategy, serving as a bonus to a core campaign. It’s increasingly easy to spot not just brand-new shows, but existing powerhouse productions and globally successful tours, cultivating their own fandom and community. Towing that line between encouragement and exploitation is a challenge. Most fans want the official twitter account to reference them and big up their community. But how does the PR team know which fans want the exposure of being retweeted to thousands? How does the production keep its community engaged, acknowledging the cost of attending a show so frequently but not encouraging it in an irresponsible way? What balance exists between officially backing an x80 strong group of cosplayers into your theatre for a meetup, without ruining an otherwise ‘normal’ night at the theatre for the hundreds of others? It is a constant balancing act – and one that most shows with strong communities have nailed.
Come From Away, for me, has always been the gold standard. I first saw the show in 2020, and it knocked me for six. It takes your breath away. I have rarely felt as emotional in a theatre than I did on closing night. The social media team for that show keep the community alive in so many ways, despite the West End and Broadway runs having ended, both by involving them in the in-person attendance experience and keeping an organic online presence, interacting with fans regularly. When Come From Away superfan and all-round lovely fandom member, Laura Townsend, passed away, the show posted a tribute to them online which provided a safe and heartwarming space for other members of the community to pay their respects and process their grief. Other shows do fan engagement well too, especially new fringe musicals who clearly recognise the value in cultivating a small group of dedicated fans who will tell others about them (RIDE springs to mind).
It’s time to once again mention Operation Mincemeat. You’ll have to indulge me for bringing it up so much but as a #Mincefluencer it is quite literally my (unpaid-unofficial-nobody-asked-me-to-do-it) job. We reached out to David Cumming, one of its stars and part of Spitlip, the extraordinarily talented quartet behind the show, to ask them what they thought of the Operation Mincemeat fan community.
David said, “The world can feel very polemic at the moment with social media often foregrounding our differences. So to be a reason that people come together in the physical and digital spheres to share joy, happiness and creativity is truly special. And the fact that people are finding support within this community to be their truest selves is a testament to the loving and caring nature of the Mincemeat fandom. Our primary aim with our work has only ever been to bring joy to people's hearts and seeing the Mincefluencer community replicate this between themselves brings joy to our own. It is all so much more than we ever dreamt possible.”
Above: More pictures of Mincemeat cosplayers inside the Fortune Theatre post-show (credit: Avalon UK and Operation Mincemeat)
David’s comments really hammer home, for me, what’s really special about the Mincemeat community. There is close to zero toxicity. It’s 100% joy. Despite being 400 strong on Discord (enough to fill the Fortune Theatre where the show is playing) there are rarely disagreements. Instead of being frustrated when a lead actor is unavailable – there are some unpleasant tales from some fandoms of not treating understudies kindly - #Mincefleuncers instead flock to the theatre to buy tickets en-masse in the hope of completing another bingo square (yes, there’s a real bingo card here). When there’s history to be uncovered, groups of extremely clever people stepped forward and took up the mission in #FindingHester. Each week the most talented fans in the universe contribute to #HestersDrawingClub which is always judged by a different member of the production. I am only able to give such a detailed testimonial about Operation Mincemeat because it’s the fandom I’m currently part of, but hopefully it gives you a flavour of how enjoyable it is to be a part of. No doubt other shows and communities experience similar levels of joy.
I was trying to work out how to finish this article. I could write something about how important communities are for fostering new art and talent, or about why I think fandoms are so misunderstood. I could do a rallying call to those who aren’t part of a fandom explaining why you should dive headfirst in when you find yourself enthused by a show. But that hardly seems fitting given the twenty incredible testimonials I received from very generous people ahead of writing it. Instead, I’ll thank those people for being so honest and vulnerable, and sharing their experiences.
I have my hands up: I thought you were all a bit mad. I am so delightfully and unironically thrilled to have been proven right, and to consider myself a part of it all.
Harry Bower (left) embracing the community spirit at Operation Mincemeat.