Right Material, Wrong Venue
When the Royal Opera House opened an original new work about Anna Nicole Smith, some audiences expressed horror at the choice of subject matter for such an august venue. Personally, I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than sit through another dusty production of ‘La Traviata’. It’s not because I haven’t enjoyed it before – I have, several times – but why shouldn’t traditional works be mixed with new pieces?
Sometimes the right material ends up in the wrong place. ‘Made In Dagenham’, the far too witty musical about striking women’s rights (see review elsewhere) is closing early despite rave notices. Maybe a show with a political subtext that climaxes at a TUC conference should have been in the Donmar, a smaller venue associated with more heavyweight fare.
When original theatre opens in commercial venues, audiences are generally suspicious. This happened with ‘Shoes’ by Richard Thomas, who scandalised the country with the shocking but highly moral ‘Jerry Spring – The Opera’. ‘Shoes’ got rave reviews but a hard core of Sadler’s Wells fans complained that it had no place in a ‘serious’ dance venue. Actually, given some of the impenetrable, execrably boring modern dance I’ve seen there in the past, ‘Shoes’ was a blast and made some great points about women and consumerism.
The same thing happened when the Pet Shop Boys wrote a modern ballet for Sadler’s Wells called ‘The Most Incredible Thing’, a visually stunning electronic music piece that also upset the kind of people who sit through ‘The Nutcracker’ every year.
Many films I consider to be mainstream now turn up at arthouse cinema venues, and critics howl about them being in the wrong place, but a theatre booker friend says cross-programming is essential in the arts to keep it alive. You don’t get to stage new pieces if you can’t make money to pay for them. The director Steven Soderbergh has always made arthouse movies like ‘Kafka’ interspersed with films like ‘Magic Mike’, and to me that makes perfect sense.
‘Bryant & May’ allowed me to write ‘The Sand Men’, which probably few will read – but I didn’t write it to become a best-seller, I wanted to develop a piece which paid a debt of gratitude to JG Ballard. It doesn’t denigrate the quality of the former by adding the latter; rather it’s a win-win for everyone.
A number of Northern theatres had their funding removed this year, and have already found ways to create new revenue streams by switching unexpected material into venues. When the arts are cut back, creative thinking needs to emerge.