A Love Letter... seems to me the better title of Amber Massie-Blomfield's passionate and insightful book on important British theatres (better than the main title of: 20 Theatres to see before you die)
If theatre spaces are important to you (or intrigued about how they can be) then this book is for you.
It is written with a practitioners insight, a useful knowingness. Perhaps that same type of knowingness Lorrie Moore brings to her essays when she writes “ In the words of the jazz musician Ben Sidran: “Critics! Can’t even float. They just stand on the shore. Wave at the boat.” Or as Aristotle wrote in Politics, “Those who are to be judges must also be performers.” Conversely, perhaps those who are performers must also be judges—once in a while.”
There is also a positive thread of female knowing. AM-B on the Minack theatre “The theatre was Rowena’s life’s work. For more than half a century she kept at it, spending harsh Cornish winters hauling timber and ballast up from the beach, working tirelessly, late into the evenings, often alone. It was an epic undertaking and her tools were no more sophisticated than a wheelbarrow, a hammer and chisel.”
…It was long after she died in 1983 that the Minack Theatre began to thrive as a business. Still, she kept faith with her creation to the last, sustaining it with her own diminishing funds, making minor additions and necessary improvements. Rowena possessed a singularity of vision usually permitted only to men. How often she had been described as eccentric, even mad….
… Taking time to find a chair would be a waste. A wheelbarrow does just fine. That was Rowena Cade. All propulsion, forward trajectory; a restless creature in constant pursuit of her wonderful, confounding dream: a symphony in stone. She built it because it wasn’t there.”
And a thread of being rooted in community... on watching a performance at the Tara Theatre, a theatre with a rare earth floor (led by AD Jatinder Verna) she picks up on a verbatim work of local Earlsfield residents with
“One of the accounts belongs to Joseph, who came to Earlsfield from Guyana. He talks about how he arrived in the city in 1956, discovering, for the first time, the existence of the classes. From 1960 until his retirement in 2001, he worked for British Rail. He set up a record label too, Sun City, promoting artists from the West Indies and later, writing his own songs. He talks about meeting his wife —who had also moved from Guyana to London —how the first time he went to visit her at home, he took her beef instead of roses. “In those days it was difficult to get beef. They used to have horse meat or rabbit,” he explains, and when he does so, there’s a murmur of recognition in the audience. “That’s right, that’s how it was,” someone says, and it’s like that throughout the show, little ripples in the audience, the delight of seeing details you recognise from your own life acknowledged on stage. When Joseph first arrived, he’d go to Elephant and Castle tube station and hang about for hours outside, hoping to see another person of colour. If he did, he’d approach them, and they’d swap contact details, arrange to meet up. “Racial tensions were much higher then,” Verma told me, talking about that feverish summer of 1977. I’d like to believe he’s right —that things are much better now. But across town, while we are sitting in this theatre, there is a disturbance in Dalston. Bins are set alight, Molotov cocktails thrown at police in riot gear. When I get home, I watch a video of it on Twitter. A lorry crashes through a barricade of upturned industrial bins and is surrounded by masked protestors who bash the windows and eventually climb on to the roof, bringing it to a halt. They are protesting the death, a few days ago, of Rashan Charles, a 20-year-old black man who died after being chased and apprehended by police. The Crown Prosecution Service will ultimately determine police officers should not face prosecution for the death. But the anger, I think, is about living in a society where it seems —in the wake of the fire at Grenfell Tower and the shooting of Mark Duggan, Jermaine Baker and Azelle Rodney —that, unconscionably, the lives of people of colour are still valued less. In this context, the existence of this theatre feels radical and important. At the end of the show, the man in front of me —the man who was greeting the audience as they came in —gets up on stage. This, it transpires, is Joseph, and he is here to perform his song, ‘World Anthem One’, in public for the very first time. “I wrote three songs called World Anthem One, Two and Three. You may ask why three World Anthems —well, the world is a big place and circumstances are not the same all over the world, each event needs its own response.” He sits centre-stage, takes the microphone, and breaks into song, unaccompanied. He has a thin, sweet voice that seems to split him open and reach inside him. All around him, the audience is stilled by it, hardly breathing. It is difficult not to think, now, of the gap between these two moments unfolding on opposite sides of the city. Preaching theatre as a solution to the world’s problems might seem absurdly naïve, sentimental even —the tiny transformations I’ve witnessed here too little to matter. And yet I watch this man singing his anthem for the world for the very first time, his voice growing bolder as the song goes on. I look around at the faces of the audience, turned towards him, glowing orange in the light reflected from the floor. And I think: this is all there is, really. Making a clearing for a person in our midst. Allowing them to share what matters to them. Listening.”
And later in the bar she notes a featured audience member saying:
“it seems that the universe is saying no. But actually, it is telling you that the things you want, you have to fight for.”
And “At the end of the show, Verma invited the audience to walk on the stage. People shuffled out of their seats and crowded onto to the tightly packed earth. Two women discarded their sandals in the front row, put their soles directly on the ground, as if they might earth themselves. When we were all gathered, Verma said, “I promise you magic on this stage.” Suddenly, a volley of yellow rose petals rained down, and we lifted our faces skywards.”
In talking about Camden People’s theatre (CPT) where she was Exec Director for several years she writes:
“Hope… We need this more than ever, now. At its core, what we’re witnessing around the world —as borders close down, migrant communities are maligned, and cultural differences quashed —is a struggle over what it means to be together in the same place. In this context, a theatre is a symbol and an expression of an idea: that being with other people is better than being alone. That coming together to engage with different views and ways of living in the world is not only necessary —it enriches us. It is much harder to ignore the plight or destroy the life chances of a person whose gaze you have held. Sharing space is the beginning of kindness.”
CPT is where I met my to be wife as she came to see a play of mine (Lost in Peru) when CPT had Chris Goode as Artistic Director.
AM-B writes: “ Former artistic director Chris Goode wrote in The Forest and The Field of how, during his tenure, he came to see the noise from the street as a kind of ‘litmus test’ for the attitudes of visiting companies. ‘There were those for whom it was, without question, a black mark against the venue, a failure to show proper respect for their work by protecting and insulating it from the crude and inevitable (but unpredictable) intrusions of the urban environment around us; and there were those who accepted it with patience and equanimity and perhaps a little curiosity as to what would be visited on them in the next performance and how, if at all, they would respond.’ Sometimes it seems there isn’t much space in the city for places like this anymore, by which I mean to say, marginal places, places that are rough around the edges, places that don’t easily fit the narrative of growth and progress.”
Certainly I doubt there were many spaces to take on a piece like Lost In Peru.
Having been away (and really still with no evening time for theatre currently ) from theatre spaces these last 9 years or so, it is interesting coming back to some of them - perhaps coming back to them still with hope.
“ What makes us hopeful? If we can find our answer in a theatre, we might find we understand our world a little better too. “
I am fairly sure I will never see all of these 20 theatre. In bearing witness to these spaces AM-B, and giving us a glimpse into the quirky, unique and important; she also offers a portrait of a different kind of Britain to one portrayed in the media.
In painting this theatre landscape and rooting it in history, community and the present time, she indirectly provides a defence for theatre - an art form, or discussion form, that some would say is not particularly thriving in diverse audiences and perhaps in decline - and in doing has written an important work for our time.
The current Arts blog, cross-over, the current Investing blog. Cross fertilise, some thoughts on autism. Discover what the last arts/business mingle was all about (sign up for invites to the next event in the list below).
My Op-Ed in the Financial Times (My Financial Times opinion article) about asking long-term questions surrounding sustainability and ESG.
Some popular posts: the by Nassim Taleb (Black Swan author, risk management philosopher), Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes; JK Rowling on the benefits of failure. Charlie Munger on always inverting; Sheryl Sandberg on grief, resilience and gratitude.
How to live a life, well lived. Thoughts from a dying man. On play and playing games.
A provoking read on how to raise a feminist child.