The arts world is not exactly short on awards and generally the heart sinks at the thought of another one. But there is one new prize that should please anyone who goes out of an evening for a taste of culture. It is The Most Welcoming Theatre award, organised by the Theatre Management Association and voted for by the public.
“Welcoming”. There’s a word that doesn’t often rear its head in aesthetic discussions. But however intellectually enriching a performance, it can be diminished if the theatre is so steeply raked it gives you vertigo (yes you Trafalgar Studios, London) or its management forgets to check that trains have stopped running after the finish (as with David Tennant’s celebrated Hamlet at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon) or closes its doors just as most of the working population are able to enter (that’s most of the country’s art galleries).
Looking at the comments online about the award, it is evident that a lot of theatregoers like a nice meal in nice surroundings with their play, which accounts for the good showing so far of The Mill at Sonning in Berkshire. They also like scenic surroundings, so The Theatre by the Lake at Keswick and Minack in Cornwall are scoring well.
Of course, a lot of theatres, concert halls and cinemas aren’t able to provide meals and scenery on tap. There are still plenty of other ways of being welcoming. The first port of call for most of us is the box office, and box offices (when you eventually get to speak to a human being) are too often brusque or unhelpful. Please, artistic directors spend a day on the phones in the box office to learn what your audience’s frustrations are.
Front of house staff should, of course, be polite and helpful and generally are. But beyond human contact, audiences would also like not to be fleeced of their money. I’d find it welcoming for every performing arts venue to give a cast list free of charge in addition to the overpriced programmes. Interval refreshments should be cheaper. (I have come across theatre chiefs who have no idea how much an ice cream at the interval costs in their own building. They never saw it as their business to find out). I was intrigued to see that you can actually pre-order ice cream at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, which won a similar award last year when it was industry-run with no public vote.
It will come as no surprise if I say that booking fees, handling charges and the like are not exactly “welcoming.” I’d disqualify from the award any theatre that charges these fees. What else? Well, it’s a rare thing to hear the word leg-room mentioned in artistic circles (though tall people in the Stalls/Circle at the Royal Opera House talk about it quite often). The lack of it can ruin an evening. So welcome to the Most Welcoming Theatre Award decided by the public. Next up, I hope, the Least Welcoming Theatre Award. That would keep venues on their toes.
Surtitles? Subtitles? Let’s try seat-titles!
Surtitles. They are the translations of dialogue in the libretto written on a small screen above the stage at opera houses in Britain, including the Royal Opera House and English National Opera in London. But they needn’t be. Written above the stage that is. Last week I attended a performance of La Traviata at the State Opera House in Vienna. And I was struck by how easy it was to read the surtitles, which were conveniently on a screen on the back of the seat in front of me. For once I wasn’t continually lifting my head from the action to the surtitle, missing a bit of the action as I did so, then bringing my head back down again. Instead, the surtitles were already in my sightline, and I barely had to move my head. The back of the seat is the place for surtitles to be. British opera houses, please take note.
Is this Shakespeare’s first joint production?
In Michael Grandage’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s Noel Coward Theatre there is an intriguing moment when Titania and her hippy fairies offer Bottom a joint. “Inhale, mortal,” they all urge. I fretted about this for quite a while as I couldn’t recall the line in any other productions of the play I had seen. And surely even Shakespeare’s genius wasn’t that prescient as to foresee the summer of love and marijuana. Looking up the text when I got home, I discovered that the actual phrase written was “Hail, mortal.” That’s quite a sleight of hand by Grandage and I couldn’t work out whether the linguistic liberty was brilliant or outrageous. I settled for brilliant — with the caveat that other directors of Shakespeare should not take it as open season for adding syllables.