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British Theatre Is Not The Sole Terrain of the Middle Class

Royal National Theatre Subsidised Some Seats - David Samuel
The debate about British theatre accessibility is old, but actually misses the point. Performing arts cross all class barriers & genres to survive and grow.

A sketch in the 1960s’ British satirical TV series That Was The Week That Was, showed three comedians in height order, representing upper, middle and lower classes. The middle one looked up to the upper; down to the lower, who looked up to both. Some might argue little has changed, Britain, is still class-ridden. That class influences the arts in general and performance in particular, surprises few.

Typical Audience Profile

Mintel reported in October 2010 that British performing arts are the domain of the middle classes, despite schemes to make audiences more diverse. The National Theatre, among others, tried subsidised tickets for young people, but there is concern, confirmed by Mintel’s findings, that ‘the typical performing arts visitor is female, high-earning from the 45-54 age range’.

The pantomime profile is younger because it includes more children and takes 10% of total audience. Ballet, opera and more traditional mainstream plays tend to attract older audiences, but the most popular genre is musicals, attracting almost a quarter of all performance-goers from the 42% of British adults who attended some performing arts event last year.

Mintel divided the population into three groups: ‘Culture Vultures’ (regular visitors to a range of arts events), ‘Show People’ (who focus mainly on musicals) and ‘No-Gos’ (more men, youngest and oldest extremes and those from lower-earning households).

Politics of Performing Arts

In April 1997 during the General Election campaign, Peter Lathan wrote in the British Theatre Guide: ‘the arts will be low on the list of priorities of any government, no matter what its hue….they are a generally middle-class interest, but, unfortunately, an interest for the minority of the middle class. The arts don’t have enough political clout to attract any serious commitment from any party. They all pay lip-service to the arts but no party will ever make them a plank of their election platform’.

Lathan suggested that given a choice between 1p off basic income tax or £2 off a ticket to the local theatre, the average middle classer would opt for the tax cut. In the same way, he thought the working class would opt for more on pensions, local schools/hospitals or child benefit than to the arts.

His conclusion was that theatre and other arts welcomed people only on its own terms: ‘You fit in with us and with what we think is good.’ He cited the work of John McGrath’s ‘7:84’ Scottish theatre group (named after the statistic that 7% of the population own 84% of the wealth), as set out in his book A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre, Audience, Class and Form (1997).

McGrath believed passionately that a working class audience for British theatre making demands and upholding values was no different from how middle class audiences enshrined their beliefs. He wanted working class values and traditions to build a thriving theatre-culture, rooted in working class experience ‘shorn of middle class word play’.

He argued that making theatre is a political act. An audience goes into a space and other people exert power over them to make choices with political implications about which story to tell and how to tell it. The ‘theatre establishment’ is essentially middle class, so voices, concerns and stories will be for and by them. In business-sponsored theatrical environments, there is little place for working class oriented theatre.

In The Guardian Blog (Feb 2010), Lyn Gardner asked: ‘Why is British theatre still in thrall to Oxbridge?’ She felt that with graduates of elite universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester) occupying so many British top spots in politics, law, business and the arts, poor theatre diversity was a worsening problem. She argued that ‘connection’ was still vital in the small world of theatre directing and managing. Universities, like the ‘right’ schools, form natural networks enabling certain people to get on.

She included ethnic minorities as being under represented in ‘white, middle class’ British theatre. Despite social engineering of the past twenty years and more disadvantaged youngsters attending universities, Gardner said 43% of Oxbridge places go to those educated in the private sector.

Her main concern was that with networking so vital in early stages of careers for internships, job openings and opportunities, but economic constraints of recession, austerity and refocussing of public spending, theatre culture will increasingly be dominated by those from particular backgrounds.

Funding Is Major Issue

Arts Council budget reductions, reflected in all areas of public service, will impact all subsidised arts, just when corporate finance is also being redirected, where it hasn’t dwindled away altogether. Despite this, the performing arts industry has blossomed with tourism growing, more people staying in the UK for holidays, the mushrooming of talent-showcasing TV, advances in technology and the fusion of dance, drama and music art forms.

In 2010 the industry earned about £2 billion a year (up over 20% in five years) and was a major job creator, directly and indirectly. Most visitors buy refreshments, programmes and merchandising. DVDs, CDs, concerts and tours generate further business. Whether it will or should be free-standing without public subsidy is still an open question.

Theatre is an extremely broad church. While accepting the arguments about dangers of over middle classing the culture, is it true that most is middle class? The majority of playwrights and directors alive or recently dead (Pinter, Hare, Brenton, Eyre) are left-wing in outlook, even if with some element of middle class ethos in their lives.

Additionally, don’t musicals and pantomimes include all classes? Aren’t football and other big league sports, pure theatre, enjoyed by those who love spectacle? Doesn’t stand-up comedy target all classes? Isn’t circus classless entertainment? Indeed, circus, panto and Punch & Judy are traceable from origins in commedia dell’Arte, a fully classless art form. Isn’t most street theatre and political performance in general pushing at the boundaries of class rigidity to bring about change?

The continuing obsession in the second decade of the 21st century, with the 1960s, shows how the performing arts actually cross boundaries. Those who watched the revival of the rock musical Hair in London in 2010 may have indulged in sentimental nostalgia, but also realised that war, for example, cuts across all ages, all classes, all communities. Theatre both reflects and articulates that.

First published on Suite 101, 30th December 2010.

Photo: Royal National Theatre Subsidised Some Seats – David Samuel

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