Theatre Critic and Journalist

Have new writing theatres lost their nerve?

Have new writing theatres lost their nerve?

Published in The Stage, 10.01.2013

To catch last year’s best new plays, theatregoers had to be mighty quick off the mark. Most of them had sold out well before their first previews, let alone before the rave reviews appeared.

Tickets for The Effect, This House and A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – all in the Cottesloe, the smallest of the National’s three spaces – were long gone by opening night. Likewise most shows at the Royal Court Upstairs, which remains fully booked until mid-February. Polly Stenham’s latest, which only started previews yesterday, sold out as far back as November.

On the face of it, this all looks like a very good thing – and, at one level, it is. However, those sold-out signs have as much to do with caution as they do quality.

What all these new plays have in common, aside from being products of the subsidised sector, is that they are playing in spaces too small to satisfy even initial demand for tickets. Studio spaces are regularly housing big-name writers such as Stenham, Jez Butterworth and Lucy Prebble, who can command an audience on reputation alone. The previous year, Mike Leigh’s Grief also played in the Cottesloe despite his previous play, Two Thousand Years, playing to twice as many people each night in a sell-out Lyttelton run.

At the same time, last year was the first of Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National without a new play premiering in the Olivier.

In the run-up to The River, Butterworth revealed that Royal Court members, with their priority booking privileges, could fill a four-week run in its 90-seat studio four times over. Is it any wonder that productions there sell out? Again, that’s a great thing, but it makes an issue of access and exclusivity. Admittedly, it’s one theatres are both aware of and taking seriously, as demonstrated by the Donmar’s Front Row ticket scheme and the readiness of both the National and the Royal Court to extend or transfer sell-out shows into bigger spaces.

However, the question remains why such plays – many of them seemingly surefire successes – are being programmed in such small spaces? After all, as publically-funded productions, shouldn’t they be made available to as many people as possible. Great Art for Everyone, and all that.

The obvious retort is that these plays are directly written for – or at the least, better served by – smaller spaces, and, moreover, that is a playwright’s prerogative. Call it the Butterwoth defence. Other major playwrightss to have written specifically for the upstairs space include Mark Ravenhill, Mike Bartlett and Anthony Neilson.

And yet, there’s definitely room for manoeuvre here. Two-handers and solo shows have played in the Downstairs space, which has proved both its intimacy and its flexibility. Equally, plays like Collaborators and This House are big enough to sit happily on the Olivier stage – as their subsequent Olivier transfers prove.

However, there is good reason for caution. While box office for new writing rose from 62.1% to 68.6% between 2003 and 2008, overall audience figures fell by 8% between 2009 and 2011. Combine those figures and you wipe out the initial growth and, with it, a certain amount of confidence in any new play’s ability to fill a big auditorium.

Yet those spaces are also exposing in ways that go beyond financial risk. Larger spaces inevitably reduce the subtely and nuance of an actor’s performance, meaning small spaces can do more justice to a new play, albeit at the expense of those that miss out on tickets. Meanwhile audiences – not least among them critics – instinctively tend to favour the less-championed underdog. Studio premieres can, therefore, enhance the possibility of a future life in the form of either extensions or transfers.

This is, broadly speaking, the way the Cottesloe has been programmed in recent years; with one eye on elsewhere. It’s not dissimilar to Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space, which eschews reviews and large audiences for the sake of future productions. This month, Amelia Bullmore’s Di and Viv and Rose becomes the first production there to transfer into the theatre’s main space. Initial caution can, in other words, increase subsequent success.

From there, however, it’s only a small step to cynicism. Having realised the benefits of self-producing commercial transfers, it’s in subsidized theatres’ interests not to exhaust their audience first time out, given that they might pay double in the West End? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example, surely had both scale and appeal enough to merit an Olivier run like His Dark Materials and War Horse before it. After three months in the Cottesloe – the equivalent of one in the Olivier – top tickets are almost twice the price (excluding premium seats). Alternatively, at the Royal Court, playwrights with commercial potential are playing upstairs, while those without – Martin Crimp, Caryl Churchill for instance – are in the larger main space.

Call it good business sense by all means, but it’s audiences that end up missing out. Caution can be a gamble in its own right.

Photograph: Manuel Harlan

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