Theatre Thoughts: Why Do We Bother

I recently undertook a research degree, looking at Fringe Theatre and New Writing. I am reproducing parts of it here, as I think it may be of interest!

One of the questions I asked during my research was “Why Do We Bother?” Why bother creating something new when people may not come, or may not like it? I interviewed participants who work with New Writing and in Fringe Theatres, and held many informal conversations, both online and in person.

Why Bother?
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As Anna Furse states to Delgado and Svich: “…ironically performance studies, feeding an industry in which there is a ninety per cent unemployment rate, keeps drawing applicants….” (FURSE) DELGADO&SVICH, P.71. 2002

“Performance has no notable value in terms of survival, and yet it seems to have been around as long as people have.”
FREEMAN, 2007. P.137

In several of the literature sources I read in support of the research, from both before and during the time frame I considered for the inquiry, there are references to theatre being in a state of crisis: Delgado and Svich state that: “Theatre [is] in a particularly precarious state…” (DELGADO & SVICH, 2002. P.6) however, other texts believe that we are in an age of theatrical innovation and creativity, with Sierz writing that “[In] 2003-8, 42 per cent of plays in a sample of sixty-five English theatre companies were new, and the box office performance of new plays showed a considerable increase on any previous figures…” (SIERZ, 2011. P.16)

Most theatre attendees have been to at least one musical (75%) or play (72%) in the past year. Fewer (38%) have been to a dance performance and even less (27%) have been to the opera… Two in three (66%) want to maintain or increase the number of musicals and plays they attend this year, primarily driven by London attendees, which would continue the upward trend in attendance of West End theatre. 
MERMIRI, P.15-16. 2013

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The Participants responses to the question of why they bother were very personal, but all shared the same feeling that they loved the creation of the ‘New’, feeling as though they were part of a tradition and a continuing of a heritage. They also enjoyed the challenge of creating something that had never been done before, and from my supporting reading, it appears that audiences are responding:

New work made up more than half of all productions staged in 2013, according to research into the output of 273 venues around the UK… The British Theatre Consortium… found that new work – including original plays, musicals, pantomime and opera – made up 59% of all productions, 66% of all performances, 63% of all seats sold and 66% of box office income… this is the first time since records have been kept that new work has overtaken the number of revivals staged.
HEMLEY. 2015

One of the things I wanted to find out during the inquiry was why those who are involved in writing and creating new work are drawn to this area of theatre, if there is a lack of funding, and only recently, it appears, increased interest. 

“In terms of why bother...if I were to apply that logic, I'd probably not do anything! Why bother going on holiday when it will come to an end?! Why bother staying healthy when we all will die one day?! I bother because I love it, I care, I'm excited by the people I work with and what they and we have to say. And I believe that live performance can make people feel something and move them in some way. 

This feeling was one that was replicated from many of the participants during their interviews and through the supporting literature. When asked why they bother, the responses indicated that those who work in theatre, especially involved in the creation of new plays and stories, felt as though they were continuing a tradition:

Well, theatre, in some form or another has been around since the earliest times. The urge to tell stories while cavemen assembled around a campfire. Okay, so the cave mouth has become the proscenium arch and the campfire is a spotlight, but the compulsion remains the same; to hear and to tell stories: to make sense of the unknown. 

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Shepherd and Wallis support this point by writing that “…drama is prior to the arts… drama connects back to something fundamental in human behaviour, with a point of origin in primitive ritual.” (SHEPHERD & WALLIS, P.58. 2004.)

I often feel like we treat text – especially revered classics – as a strict parent that we don’t want to let down, but sometimes wish we could rebel against! I much prefer to see New Theatre as a best mate that you can tussle with, on a level, editing to suit a specific actor or production. 

This indicates to me that the involvement in New Theatre is about the freedom to express a particular event or emotion in a way that is truthful to both the participants (writers, producers and actors) and their intended audiences. As Vire wrote: “When was the last time you gave a standing ovation at the movies?” (VIRE. 2015.)

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Theatre allows us to experience events; whether those within our own sphere of experience, or from another perspective or culture, and Freeman writes that “…it is truth that we crave, in performance no less than in politics, in life no less than in love, and in art no less than in love…” (FREEMAN. P.89-110. 2007)

I believe the writer has the responsibility to stand witness to an event. To represent their world in the best way that they can. In the most honest, and truthful way… There is a lot wrong with our world, and a lot of people at the minute are feeling the same way, so some of the plays written will only exist for the next five minutes, but people will appreciate them while they are here… 

The theme of tradition and continuation was one which recurred throughout my interviews and informal conversations. Because theatre is something that has been around in many forms and styles for thousands of years, I gained the impression that practitioners feel they are part of a heritage, and New Writing is part of this creation of an ancestry.

Delgado, M & Svich, C. 2002. Theatre In Crisis? Manchester: Manchester University Press
Freeman, J. 2007. New Performance/New Writing. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan
Hemley, M. 2015. New Work Has Overtaken Revivals… [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 15 August 15]
Mermiri, T. 2013. State Of Play: Theatre UK. London: Live Analytics|Ticketmaster International
Shepherd, S & Wallis, M. 2004. Drama/Theatre/Performance. Oxfordshire: Routledge
Sierz, A. 2011. Rewriting The Nation. London: Methuen Drama
Vire, K. 2015. What Live Theatre Offers [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 29 November 15].


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