#17 - You already know
Why giving audiences what they know they want is hurting theatre
This week I was walking out of Oxford Street station when I saw this poster
It was the first time I had seen the marketing headline ‘You Already Know You’re Gonna Love It!’
It suddenly struck me that this has become the centre point of most commercial marketing and by extension the producing process of most commercial musical theatre. Making something and then convincing an audience that they already know that they’re going to love it.
Even though few marketing campaigns are as obvious as this one, I have noticed that the west end feels driven by this very idea of familiarity and comfort. You know what you are getting and you can be sure you will like it.
It made me aware that the reason I go to the theatre is based on a certain amount of risk. Each visit has always been predicated on the idea that I’m not exactly sure what I will find there and that even though I might love it, I might also hate it. But I certainly don’t already know anything. For me, going to the theatre is about discovery, it is about finding out, it is rarely about knowing.
I think one of the greatest joys that theatre can offer is that it can be surprising. That it can give us a new and unexpected experiences, that it can offer new and unexpected combinations of feelings, that in can teach us things about ourselves and the world that we didn’t know before going into that dark room with a group of strangers.
A director I assisted once told me that it was harder to get an audience to cry than it was to get them to laugh. But that it was hardest of all to get an audience to gasp. Surprising an audience is difficult so perhaps it has been decided that it is not necessary, or not worth the risk or effort of trying.
As theatre gets more and more expensive, as the world becomes tougher, and as we all become more risk averse, it seems evident that we are being told we should only want experiences that are finely calibrated to be exactly what we think, things that we already know will satisfy us in ways we already understand and plan for.
But my whole reason for doing theatre is to find out something new, to experience something new, to ask questions I don’t have answers for. But I suppose that isn’t as easy to market, and if it isn’t easy to market, then perhaps it isn’t as easy to sell, and then perhaps it isn’t as easy to make.
So I suppose my question is. How do we continue making and getting support for work whose effect on audiences might not be so obvious? Because musical theatre as an art form is at a huge risk if we only allow work to be made that we already know audiences will like. Or work that fits into recognised patterns of what audiences have liked before. But the catch-22 is that we need audiences to buy tickets to make work financially viable so we are now seemingly trapped in a loop where we can only make things that people already want for fear of what will happen if nobody wants the things we make.
But here I think lies a fundamental flaw, does something need to be loved by everyone to be successful on the terms it needs to be? By aiming at too broad an idea of likability or enjoyability, are we making the work that gets to the stage ever blander and more difficult to tell apart?
In science, scientists are given the chance to research things that may lead to dead ends precisely because it is known that a lateral framework of experimentation is often what leads to innovations and successes that no one saw coming.
But if we only give funding and opportunities to things that we already know or think or imagine are what we already want, then it strikes me that the creative ambition of what is made will begin to flatten out.
I think the precise difficulty I have found is that the musicals I want to make are ones that I am not certain that people will love. But artists - like scientists - have always been good at having a sense of what’s around the corner. Of what might be next. Of discovering what no one yet knows. I am eager for more structures and opportunities to find out what’s interesting and valuable and surprising without having to be certain of it being something everyone will already love.
As Sondheim writes in Road Show
Some may not work out
Some go up the spout
Plenty more around the corner
And what’s waiting round the corner
Isn’t that what life is all about
We can’t know what’s round the corner. We certainly can’t know whether we will love it. But should we stop trying to find out?
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