4 Parallels To Theatre: 2) Visual Arts
The Visual Arts – delving into the past to discover the future
Whilst creating theatre can have many similarities to creating a work of art such as a painting, it is also often far more inhibited by certain restraining factors. Most of these are economic. To take a few examples, a painting only needs one artist to create it, whereas even the smallest pieces of theatre require a team. Likewise (and I suppose consequently too) a painter need only find a single buyer for a single work and they’ve fulfilled their commercial brief – a piece of theatre, as a rule, needs to sell roughly 60% of its seating capacity to even break even and stay afloat. Even in the case of subsidised theatre this rule still exists as (quite rightly) funding is used to push the artistic quality of the work, rather than to act as a financial buffer to something that would have been made to exactly the same budget and standards without the help of benefactors. The result of factors such as these is that a lot of theatre, particularly on a larger scale, becomes commercially rather than artistically driven. That’s by no means a criticism of the producers who are behind this kind of work. Indeed, many of them use the funds created by their big title best sellers to fund artistically adventurous work that would never get off the ground without the funds created by these long running shows.
That’s not even to say that we should write off these commercial hits as non-artistic either. There have been a couple of larger shows in the West End that I have been lucky enough to see towards the beginning of their runs and again a number of years later. Without failure, they all seemed ground-breaking and moved me on first viewing, yet seemed somewhat hackneyed and lacking in the same lifeblood on second viewing years down the line. Weirdly, I think that this highlights in a positive way just how much theatre does evolve and how quickly. If something becomes outdated, that’s a cause for celebration of the new work that is outdating it.
I remember, when I first seriously thought about focussing my attention towards being a director, a conversation an older director. He told me that he found that young directors that he met, whilst very clued up about the intricacies of more modern theatre makers like Katie Mitchel, Declan Donellan and Mike Alfreds, didn’t seem to be as engaged with the history of theatre and theatre practice. Thinking about this again in the context of art makes me realise just how many pieces of theatre that both are artistically innovative and become commercially successful look to the past in order to keep the art of theatre making moving into the future. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, for example, achieved great acclaim at the Almeida Theatre, before transferring to the West End for a hugely successful commercial run and finally was commissioned to be adapted for television by the BBC. Bartlett drew inspiration from Shakespeare and his contemporaries in structuring his imagined story of a future King like a traditional history play and wrote it in blank verse too. An imitation of something hundreds of years old breaking the artistic ground of the present. I can’t help comparing this to Pre Raphaelites looking back hundreds of years to the work of Quattrocento artists such as Da Vinci and Botticelli to find inspiration for their 19th century movement in the visual arts.
Interestingly, the backward looking and interacting aspect of King Charles III is in the writing. That, after all, is how theatre has been, for the most part, preserved over the centuries. All we have left of the actual performances (the actual theatre!) of historical works are a few pictures and diary accounts if we’re lucky. The Pre-Raphaelites and Mike Bartlett could go back many centuries and look directly at the work of people practicing the same art form as them all that time ago. Directors do not have that facility. That’s not to say that there isn’t an interaction with the past, it’s just not as long and deep a past that is accessible. We can draw on memories of past theatre that we’ve seen, or even access archive footage up to a certain point, but beyond that it’s progressively closer to guess work and interpretation of written accounts as you head back along the theatrical timeline.
It will be interesting to see how future theatre makers interact with the archives and are able to delve deeper into the catalogue of theatre history as it becomes more akin to art history and playwriting history as the years go on.