In Defence of ‘Arty’ Theatre

When even the presenters of BBC’s Front Row dislike theatre, it’s beginning to look as though the art form has no place in mainstream culture. Yet, it always seems like more can be done to reinvigorate the art. Katherine Corcoran discusses this phenomenon.

The term ‘arty’ encompasses a range of cultural insults from pretentious, to confusing, to outright boring. Art that is ‘too arty’ is pushed from the mainstream and into the realms of the alternative non-commercial, and a simple glance at the highest grossing theatre will prove that spectacle song and dance numbers sell much better than poignant Beckett-esque comments on the human condition. But is theatre with plot themes more complex than the Wicked Witch of the West’s life pre-Oz intrinsically inaccessible? Or is there potential for the drama enjoyed by art-literate theatregoers to be likewise appreciated by the masses?

The question arises as it has emerged that the presenting team for Front Row, the BBC’s televised equivalent of the Radio Four arts show, prefer theatre that gives them “easier access to the loo” and “more intervals”. Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Niki Bedi are a dissatisfactory trio to channel the BBC’s ability to provide representation for non-commercial art forms.

Televising Front Row was a decision made to “connect an even wider audience with the very best arts and culture right across the country”, according to the BBC’s Director of Arts Jonty Claypole. But when the presenters of the program fail to demonstrate any appreciation for theatre with less commercial recognition than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock (which, it should be noted, Amol Rajan saw in New York “a couple of years ago”) experts are justifiably skeptical. After all, I would be concerned if the presenter of Young Musician cited their musical experience as a Taylor Swift concert in 2014. How will fringe theatre gain popularity in the mainstream when those employed to represent drama treat it with utter indifference?

Image: Joan Marcus

Nonetheless, whilst the presenters’ cultural ignorance is frustrating for theatre critics who could do a much better job, their reservations have roots in honesty. Giles Coren’s comment that going to the theatre impedes his ability to get his children to bed and be out of the house for half past seven touches on the inaccessibility of theatre for busy people with a 9-5 job. The essence of drama as a live medium that requires pre-planning and the purchase of a ticket makes it an inconvenient opponent to the accommodating, as-and-when forms of film, music and literature.

Perhaps that’s why when we do make time to attend the theatre, a Disney or Lloyd Webber-affiliated show with meticulous choreography, a live orchestra and dramatic staging is what most people look for. The Lion King is the highest grossing show worldwide for its aesthetic encapsulation and loveable plot, not its depth as an art form. When theatre demands a lot from its audience, the audience demand a lot from theatre; small-scale productions by an newfound drama company sadly don’t justify the time and effort they require to attend.

Another issue that drama faces is the divide between the mass-produced commercial and the ‘arty’. Unlike with visual art and music, it’s difficult to pinpoint a play with a level of notability somewhere in the middle of the most renowned productions and the domains of alternative, fringe theatre. This is because to find out what’s on and what’s good, you have to go looking: arts news isn’t bombarded on the public like sports news. If the only readers of theatre criticism are those with previous interest in theatre, it will rarely be able to succeed in advertising the art form to the masses.

As long as the general public remain unexposed to arts news in their daily lives, we cannot expect the partition between commercial and ‘arty’ drama to get any smaller. Whilst musicals continue to dominate what’s popular on stage and inadequate representation is given to shows outside the West End, fringe theatre will remain an alternative, ‘arty’ pastime. The presenters of Front Row are a controversial choice by the BBC, but I hope that somehow Coren, Rajan and Bedis’ previous disassociation from the theatrical scene acts as an agent to persuade others of a similar mindset that ‘arty’ theatre is actually worth seeing.

Katherine Corcoran

(Image courtesy of Leeds Grand Theatre)