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Why We Aren’t Signing the Theatre Charter

Head of Communications Amber Massie-Blomfield reflects on the Albany’s decision not to sign up to the Theatre Charter. 

Last week we were invited to sign up to the Theatre Charter, a new ‘Code of Conduct’ for theatre goers (specifically ‘casual and future audience members’), which outlines expectations of behaviour during theatre performances.

We have taken the decision not to sign up to the Theatre Charter. Of course we hope those that attend performances at the Albany will behave in a fashion that respects our artists and our fellow audience members. But we believe that to formalise this expectation in this way would damage our relationship with our audiences.

The Theatre Charter singles out ‘new’ audiences. For the Albany, these audiences are perhaps more important than any other. We work hard to reach those that might not typically experience the arts. This is because we believe in the transformational impact that the arts can have in all contexts and communities, and that access should not be limited to those with an established artistic literacy.

Much of our work revolves around removing barriers to entry, whether that be staging performances at unusual times to make it easier for certain groups to attend, placing arts in libraries, or selling tickets on a market stall in Deptford Market.

We know that for many the biggest barrier to entry is feeling that theatre is ‘not for them’; they worry that they won’t know what to wear, or how to behave.

But the truth is that they do know how to behave. I’ve sat with several rambunctious groups of teenagers, and been amazed by how quickly they have become transfixed by the performance. Sometimes they interact in a far more vocal way than a ‘regular’ audience would, and it is joyous, for actors and other audience members, to experience such an immediate and real response. When a mobile phone has gone off, the group has policed itself – far more mortifying to incur the wrath of a bunch of your school mates than a uniformed theatre usher brandishing a set of rules.

The best theatre rests on an unwritten compact between the audience and the artist. It is implicit in the theatrical format that a performance can only take place if the audience buys into the conditions necessary for its creation. This means subscribing to the idea that the stage is a castle in Denmark just as much as it means switching off your mobile phone. The magic lies in the fact we are in this together, and it couldn’t happen if we weren’t. The Charter not only ignores the importance of this faith; it actively undermines it.

Much of the joy of theatre is the result of its ‘liveness’. Chris Goode talks about The Cat Test:

“The Cat Test can perhaps best be thought of as a development of the old miners’ practice of using a canary to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. (Not to be confused with the ‘pop’ test for carbon dioxide, for which you insert a lit canary into a test tube, etc.) The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’.”

For Cat, read rustling sweet paper, mobile phone ring tone, or whispered conversation. The point is that as theatre is a live event, it already preconceives the possibility of interruptions and, at its best, is prepared to embrace them. This posits a counter challenge to the theatre community, which there isn’t scope to explore here: but if the manner in which audiences are engaging with live experiences is changing so profoundly, isn’t it better for the future health of the art form to respond to and embrace that change, rather than attempting to regulate it?

This isn’t to say there isn’t a need for a conversation about how we behave in public spaces. It’s an issue that has been addressed brilliantly, for example, by Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker’s I Wish I Was Lonely, a poignant show that explores how the prevalence of mobile phones is impacting upon human interactions. It worked because it made its audience members assess their own relationship with their mobile phones, and draw their own conclusions.

But ultimately, we like our audiences. We like being close to them in the dark, in all their shuffling, wrapper crinkling, throat clearing immediacy. And we like it best in those moments when you can hear a pin drop, when what’s happening on stage is so completely and utterly transfixing that everyone holds their breath.

Amber Massie-Blomfield, Head of Communications, The Albany

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