#9 - Expensive
How some costly steps gave me a mid career crisis
I went so see Spring Awakening at The Almeida last week and through the production I kept noticing how well made the set was.
The doors all closed with a soft, assured tap that reminded me of the sort of expensive drawers and cupboards you find in the homes of the rich. The set was made of steps which had a solid hardwood sound from anyone that stepped on them rather than the hollow thunk of most raised staging units I have encountered. There were these upstage glass panes that could immediately become opaque or see-through as lighting cues demanded. The video design was pixel perfectly mapped onto each step.
Reader. It looked expensive.
And the whole time I kept thinking. So few theatre artists will ever get to make theatre this expensive, this polished, this well finished.
It led me to the realisation that a lot of artists; novelists, painters, musicians, poets can all pretty much aspire to the height of their art with very rudimentary equipment. Yes they need the privileges of time and space. But there is really no tangible difference between the resources they have and those at the top of their game have to make their art. Perhaps no one will notice their novels, their poems, their songs, their paintings, but they can make them without compromise whenever they would like.
But a theatre director can never make theatre of the ‘highest quality’ without lots and lots of money. Money to hire large casts of actors, to pay for rehearsal weeks and rehearsal spaces, to pay for creative teams and projectors and speakers. And to pay for soft close doors.
So watching this I realised, I have never had the resources of a mainstage musical in a well resourced subsidised theatre and I realised with great clarity that I probably never will.
I also noticed that having resources means your shows can look slicker than if you don’t. The soft close doors of Spring Awakening just like the soft close drawers in a rich person’s kitchen diminish the relationship between cause and effect. Even a clumsy closure will still look ok if the door is expensive enough. It sometimes seems to me that those with resources will often look better than if they had to make work without them. And the idea then perpetuates that they are better directors.
In addition, those who have handled large scale resources often get trusted to do so again and again. And those who have never made it there, get told that they can’t be trusted to hold things they have never before been seen holding. And so the system elevates a few people, gives them everything they need to look good, and then makes them look singular in their ability to look that good.
I first saw the original production of Spring Awakening when I was 21 and it had a huge effect on me. It made me realise that musicals can be cool. It made me realise that they could be intelligent and visceral and startling. It made me realise that they could make me laugh and cry more than other forms of art. It was a beautifully thought through production and every element knitted together to make something so considered and intentional. Most apparent was the tone which felt so coherent and so unlike the tone of other musicals I had seen.
I imagined what it might be like to direct a musical like that one day. To make one on that scale. I imagined myself in 10 or 20 years and willed myself to be making work like that.
But at 36 I sat in the audience of a major London revival of Spring Awakening and spent a lot of it thinking about how I might never get the chance to show what I can do because I might never be given the resources of the chosen few. I might never get sliding perspex boxes and soft close doors.
And it made me think that theatre is a pyramid. Theatre is a skyscraper with a top floor with a private lift.
Over and over, theatre elevates a chosen few and gives them everything to stay at the top while the rest confusedly look on as their kitchen drawers bang every time we close them.
Theatre reinforces the narrative that those on the top floor are the best and the most trustworthy and the most talented. And everyone else spends their entire lives trying to prove themselves worthy of the top floor. We spend our lives trying to look that slick and assured with fewer rehearsal weeks, less tech time and near non existent set budgets.
Year after year I see the chosen few get shown to the lift that takes them to the top floor where they continue to stay while everyone else looks on and wonders whether they can still define themselves as a success while living lower down the building. Or in a different building altogether.
As I looked at the Spring Awakening set I thought. Imagine what I could do if I had those resources. Imagine the Spring Awakening I could make. But that’s the problem isn’t it? We get trapped in the notion that we aren’t making real art because we haven’t been given permission. We get stuck in the idea that our careers have to be heading somewhere or else we are nowhere.
I’m not sure what the answer to this is except to say why do we give the same people the chances over and over again? Why do we not mix it up more? Why is theatre so content to operate with such a rift between the haves and the have nots? Why do we not pass the microphone around?
Because there are no doubt many many theatre artists who are capable of great art that will never get the opportunities or resources even once in their life while for others it is a monthly occurrence. And it got me thinking. How can we take what the few have and spread it out a little more to give more opportunities to the many?
But on the other hand. As I looked at the soft close doors and hardwood steps I thought to myself. I wish I could have this. And maybe that’s the problem too.
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