Theatre Critic and Journalist

Column: On Fandom

Column: On Fandom

Published in The Stage, 24.07.2014

“There’s only one Katie Mitchell,” the packed stalls sing. “One Katie Mitchell. ONE KA-TIE MIIIIT-CHELL.” One man stands on his seat and whips his ‘Attempts on Your Life’ T-shirt around above his head. Another pulls up his sleeve to display a tattoo of Hattie Morahan in Iphigenia at Aulis. A teenage girl weeps into her copy of The Directors’ Craft.

Or…not. The World Cup got me thinking: What if theatre had fans like football has fans? What if people cared so much about their local theatre and their favourite artists that they shaped their entire identities accordingly? Imagine, cars driving around Manchester with Royal Exchange flags flying from their windows or schoolkids in playgrounds swapping stickers of their favourite RSC actors. “Go on, I’ll trade you Pippa Nixon for Sam Troughton and that Erica Whyman shiny.” Think of teenagers’ bedrooms dotted with posters of their favourite commercial producers. (Hey, Ed, there’s an idea. Free next week: your very own Howard Panter pull-out…)

There’s a lot of talk, at the moment, about audiences as advocates. It’s at the heart of the What’s Next? movement and the My Theatre Matters! campaign being backed by The Stage. The idea being that audiences shouting about their local theatre will make the best possible case for funding and investment. But people will only shout once they’re seeing the shows on a regular basis. Advocacy depends on investment. Theatres need to forge fans.

So why is our industry so sniffy about fandom? About the Whovians, Sherlockians and Potterfiles squished together at Stage Door for a signature and a selfie with their idols? About the so-called Superfans and Repeat Attenders, clad head-to-toe in merchandize, and returning over and over to watch the same show? About the “overexcited Hobbit fans ruining Martin Freeman’s Richard III” with – oh the shame, the horror – entrance applause and other crimes against humanity breaches of theatre etiquette?

It’s time we dropped the snobbery. Fandom needs fostering – across all sectors of the industry – and that means letting people feel part of something, first giving them access, then giving them ownership.

We need to make audiences into a tribe: individually devoted and collectively identifiable. We need Temporary Theatre T-Shirts and Iron-On show logos. There should be season tickets and loyalty cards. There should be fanzines and a greater mass media publicity drives. (My god, imagine if theatre were screened in pubs every weekend.) Playwrights and directors should do meet and greets alongside their casts. No, better still: Let’s have our own conventions.

All this is about acknowledging audiences. When did you last hear an Olivier Award winner thank the theatregoing public? Or see a curtain call that spilled into the stalls just as Wimbledon champions clamber through Centre Court’s crowds? I want Cyranos that throw their fake noses into last night ovations and Hamlets giving away their Yorricks to budding Shakespeareans. It’s not enough to tempt people in. Theatre needs to give something back.

If theatre wants fans – and it really, really should – it needs to look at football and film. It needs to matter so much to people that they build not just their lives, but also their identities around it – and building that devotion takes devotion of its own.

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