How do you solve a problem like class?

COMMENT: There probably is an attitude that theatre is for the middle class and not the working class – but the root problem is a society that thinks in classes in the first place.

Devoated and Disgruntled logoLast month I attended the Empty Space’s “Devoted and Disgruntled North East 3“. I don’t have time to explain exactly how this event works, but it’s a kind of networking event based on the idea that the most useful bits of conferences were not the structured sessions, but the coffee breaks in between where people get to talk to each other in groups of mutual interest. Anyway, there were a number of interesting topics discussed, but perhaps the most interesting talk was about the so-called “class divide” in theatre, brought up by Joe Caffrey (as recently seen in Wet House and Cooking With Elvis). There are two different issues relating the class divide. One is the apparent class divide from participation in theatre, and the other is a class divide in people coming to see it. They are both important subjects – and in the case of participation, although I think it’s more to do with connections than class, I heard of a lot of dodgy practices going on – but this discussion was very much on the latter.

Now, before I go on, I should clarify when I say “working-class” or “middle-class” in this article, I am referring to people who self-define as one or the other. I personally think this obsession with class is bollocks. It’s an outdated concept based on a long-dead system where a land-owning “upper class” had all the power. Nowadays, hardly anyone calls themselves upper-class, with middle-class and working-class being split roughly 50:50. And that’s not really a middle, is it? And with few people being born into a career nowadays, what makes you middle-class anyway? Because your parents are middle-class? Because your income or savings is over a set amount? Because you shop at Marks and Spencers? I’m struggling to find a sensible definition. But, like it or not, people define themselves as one or the other, and many people defining themselves as working class are flatly ruling out going to the theatre because it’s not for people like them. People actually says things to this effect. However stupid you might consider it, it’s a problem we can’t ignore.

I think I can safely say that anybody who’s anybody in theatre would love to solve this problem. Not being middle class isn’t the only reason used to never consider the theatre – there are plenty of other silly reasons used, like being under 35, or not living in London – but you only have to look at the clientèle of a typical play to see how much of a factor it is. If we could remove the class barrier, audience figures would shoot up. There would be more money to go round, more acts able to financially support themselves, more opportunities for aspiring writers and directors, a bigger choice of plays on offer. But I can also safely say there is no easy answer. If there was, it would have already been done and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

“Theatre is unaffordable” say some. If only it was that simple. It’s true to say that a typical theatre ticket price is more than you’d pay for a typical cinema ticket, and much cheaper than hiring a DVD. But unaffordable? It’s no more expensive than Sky Movies, a Newcastle United Match or a typical gig at the Metro Radio Arena, and the vast numbers of people there clearly didn’t find it unaffordable – so the thing that’s stopping them come to the theatre isn’t just money. No, it seems much more likely it’s due to perceptions, that theatre is too formal an environment, or the people there will be dressed smart. Daft? Maybe. Unfair? Definitely. But that’s the reality of the situation. Cut-price tickets for young people have had disappointing results, so I doubt making theatre more affordable for people on low incomes will fare much better.

It’s probably fair to say that theatres don’t help the situation aiming their leaflets and posters in the same middle-class locations, and not, say, community centres in less affluent areas. Perhaps theatres could broaden their horizons. But leaflets and posters cost money, and few marketing departments are going to be happy throwing money at places when there’s go guarantee of getting any interest out of it. But what chance do you have of drumming up interest when these places are ignored year after year? Vicious circle.

Perhaps it might be better to look at examples of where theatres do get packed. Pantomimes, obviously, and Singin’ in the Rain at the Sunderland Empire is also selling extremely well. Is this the way to get working-class people into theatre? Well, yes and no. If the object is to get as many working-class people sitting on theatre seats as possible, then, yes. But the majority of people coming to see Singin’ in the Rain will be coming on the reputation of the film (and the spectacle of thousands of gallons of rainwater on stage at their publicity was all too eager to remind us). Plenty of productions also get bums on seat based which soap star is in it rather than which play it is. Surely what we should be aiming to get people to come stage plays because of their merits as stage plays, not just as an extension of things on film and TV. Now, you might hope that these people, having come into the theatre once to see their favourite film or TV actor will then look at what else is coming to the stage. But the reality is that very few do.

But there is one area where this is success is getting working-class people into theatre (that’s theatre-proper, not just your favourite film on stage), and that is plays like Tyne and Wet House, which heavily relied on themes than many people in Newcastle identified with, and whilst I had reservations about both of these Live Theatre plays, I can’t argue with the result as they’re both returning this year. Northern Stage achieved something similar with Close the Coalhouse Door in 2012. It’s a perfectly sensible tactic: one of the best ways to make a play memorable is to write about themes that your audience identifies with, and for a Newcastle-centric audience this works very well.

Even so, I am wary about over-using this method, and this comes from my years of frustration when the Gala’s new writing programme was non-stop canny Geordie fellas with crackin’ tales (made worse by the lazy assumption that Durham can be clumped in with Newcastle). I think it is a mistake to rely exclusively on plays with themes deemed “working-class”. It’s partly because we shouldn’t be restricting northern writers to writing about certain themes – why shouldn’t a writer from Sunderland be allowed write a play about a golf club? – but more that we do not want to give the message that it’s all the north is good for. Far too many films set in northern England are about the stock themes of crime and unemployment and drugs and poverty – and over-use of the same themes are leading to some horribly horribly one-dimensional stereotypes of northerners, such as #7 on this list. That’s surely a class divide just as bad as the one we’re trying to overcome.

There are other methods worth considering too, within reason. I’d look at the idea of bring theatre to working-class venues. This is, after all, how Live Theatre started out, back in the days when the Newcastle Quayside was a dive. Ironically, Live is not in nearly as good a position to help with this as it used to be, and its success has firmly landed them in the The Establishment, but there’s plenty of other groups who could look into this, and Live and Northern Stage could look into supporting it.

But I suspect the only way to solve this problem once and for all is to face the problem head on. We need a major change in attitudes. There are no barriers between working-class people and theatre that can’t be overcome with two simple words: so what? “But a theatre feels too formal” So what? “The people there might be dressed smarter than me?” So what? “The play might be about middle-class people. My friends don’t go to the theatre. They talk about what’s on telly instead.” So what, so what, so what? It seems to me that all of these barriers people between working class people and theatre are hang-ups over things that don’t matter. And that’s an attitude that needs changing. If you’re the only working-class person in a room full of middle-class people, or vice versa: so what?

There again, that’s been the whole problem with the so-called class system for decades. Financial inequality won’t be going away any time soon, but most of the class barriers now exist only in people’s minds. And yet these psychological barriers are doing a lot of harm to society far beyond who comes into a theatre. Ultimately, I feel only solve the class problem in theatre when we solve the class problem full stop. We need a seismic change in attitudes, and if a solicitor plays pool in a local working men’s club, or a steelworker buys organic vegetables at Waitrose, the answer from society should be: so what?

There you go guys. Problem: not enough people going to theatre. Solution: fundamental change in attitudes to a complex social problem. Perhaps someone needs to write a play called This Whole Class Thing is Bollocks, Isn’t It? Any takers?

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