A centre to celebrate all performing arts is needed

A theatre museum can offer only a pale shadow of the real thing
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The Independent Online

Plans have been announced for the redevelopment of the Theatre Museum in London's Covent Garden. The rather dark, low-ceilinged and unwelcoming building, which has suffered from too many lifeless displays, is set to have a £12m redevelopment, which will see natural light let in, a large entrance hall created, ceilings raised and exhibition space doubled.

I, as a passionate lover of theatre, have an alternative plan: demolish the whole thing. It should, by now, be apparent that museums and the performing arts don't get on.

There was a pop music museum in Sheffield, but not enough people went and it closed. There was a film museum in London, the Museum of the Moving Image. Not enough people went, and it closed.

There remains a theatre museum. Not enough people went, but instead of closing, it is to have an expensive makeover. I suspect that may be merely postponing the inevitable.

A theatre museum is a contradiction in terms, perhaps even more so than a pop or film museum. Theatre is a live art form, the essence of its excitement being the interaction between performers and audience. Pop is as well, of course. But with its stars, its glamour, its close connection with video, a pop museum can at least show guitars that the famous have handled and a never-ending stream of pop videos.

Similarly, a film museum has the advantage of being able to show film, though cinemas are generally more comfortable. And, as with pop, there's no end of artefacts, from Fred Astaire's top hat, white tie and tails to Robert Downey Jr's, well, whatever.

But what can a theatre-goer hope to find in a museum? Some artefacts, of course, some interesting talks, exhibitions and workshops, no doubt.

But such diversions are far from the essence of theatre, which is performance. And yes, there can be a little of that: some "theatre in education" as it used to be known, workshops involving the very young. But they can also take part in drama lessons at school, and they can watch much better performances in a theatre.

I once had a journalist colleague who would tear her hair out in frustration because the newspaper we worked on put "Style" and "Collecting" on the same page. They are the antithesis of each other, she would complain.

I feel the same about the words theatre and museum. The fine arts and the sciences repay extensive study in museums and give repeated delight in museums.

But an art gallery has on its walls the ultimate representatives of its art form, and they cannot be found in more exciting or instructive form elsewhere.

A theatre museum can offer only a pale shadow of the real thing. Of course, I would love to see a permanent celebration of theatre in central London.

I would love to see a place where the likes of Sir Peter Hall might come and give talks to share his wealth of experience; a place where technology might help to convey the sight and sound of great performances past. But, more than anything, such a place must buzz with the excitement and tension of live performance; actors, singers, dancers must commit to performing there; stars should hold masterclasses.

If there is £12m to spend, then perhaps it should be put into a centre to celebrate all the performing arts: theatre, opera, ballet, jazz, classical and pop; a place for a generation whose tastes are probably more eclectic than any that has gone before. It needs to be lively, stimulating, have spontaneity and glamour. It should, incidentally, incorporate the capital's half-price ticket booth to encourage visitors to go on to an actual production. And, above all, it must not, not, not be called a museum.

¿ One day there might be a ticket-prices museum, complete with historical relics from the early 21st century, such as booking fees and handling charges. I would place in it the West End theatre box-office clerk who told me this week that the "handling charge" on my telephone booking was for paperwork. What paperwork exactly is involved in taking a telephone booking and typing it into the computer?

Still, the Lister Experiment of trying to persuade producers to offer theatre seats at cinema prices for selected performances continues.

Paul Roberts, producer of the Queen musical We Will Rock You has decided to celebrate the first anniversary of the experiment by offering best seats at £11.50 for the performance on Tuesday 2 December. Those wishing to buy tickets at the special price should call the box office at the Dominion Theatre in London (0870 169 0116) and quote the Lister Experiment.

¿ The times are not just a changing; they're becoming mighty confusing. Bob Dylan's excellent concert at Wembley last weekend had the most unusual introduction. The usual quaint announcement of "Please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan" was enhanced with a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating résumé of the star's career. "He was the voice of the counter-culture in the 1960s, but was a has-been in the Eighties" etc.

Is the old Jokerman becoming a genuine joker in his late middle age?