You may be surprised to learn that the future of theatre is unknown: “I don’t know what the future of theatre will be; you can leave now.” This suggestion of Sir Michael Boyd’s fell upon deaf ears, and we remained, attentive. Despite Sir Michael admitting to his failing as a mystic, as the new Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre, and Director of the RSC from 2002 to 2012, he probably knows more about the future of theatre than all but clairvoyants. However, his inaugural lecture on ‘The Future of Theatre’and our pre-lecture interview revealed much about Sir Michael’s career and his advice for aspiring directors and producers.
A lucid, expansive and engaging speaker, Sir Michael began his lecture by asking us to remember that “sometimes the future can take longer to come than you think” as he drew an analogy between Curiosity, the Mars rover, and the question of progress in art – as you do. He related that, in the attempt to “future-proof” the rover’s computer, the scientist’s working on the project decided to build a small one with “the essential capacity to learn”, a capacity embraced by theatre and which has helped contemporary theatre dwell in a “golden age” over recent years. “Never have I known a time when all major national theatre companies were on such good form”, with contemporary theatre playing its claimed “proper role, keeping an eye on institutions and addressing our culture”. (Look no further than the success of Enron if you want evidence for this). “Theatre is in a ferment of itself” Sir Michael tells me in our interview, and, with the outbreaks of “flash-mob, café, community theatre” co-operating with and challenging “official theatre”, this – more than ever – is the case. Even ‘official’ theatre is learning from a cross-fertilisation of cultures (such as with the acclaimed World Shakespeare Festival, co-ordinated by Boyd himself) and of media, as theatre finally shows film how to develop as opposed to cowering in its shadow. So the future is undeniably rosy, right? Well, as you’ve probably guessed, there is a ‘but’ coming, and the ‘but’ is wound up with that most persistent of mundanely pressing topics: economics.
Was this golden age built upon the shoulders of sand giants? Will theatre suffer more in straitened times than its cheaper and more accessible alternatives? The cold facts may seem to suggest, at the very least, that theatre is facing a struggle to force itself to be commercially viable. A disgraceful 0.05 percent of government spending is spent upon the Arts, according to Sir Michael, and he sees theatre as being forced to price itself out of the market; it is perhaps no wonder that theatre attendances across the country have dropped on average around ten percent in the last two years. The average age of a Broadway audience is 50, and I was disconcerted to find that at least half the audience for a lecture on ‘The Future of Theatre’ were over that age as well. I thought the future was forever young? When Broadway tickets can range from a paltry $200 to a mere $900, access to the arts remains slightly out of the range of the standard pre-midlife crisis individual. Then again, when managed properly and allied with cheap ticket drives, theatre can still pull in the crowds, with the Boyd-directed RSC increasing its attendance by 400,000 in the same two year period, as well as overturning a budget deficit of £2.8 million. Boyd warmly invites the theatre world to “enjoy a new age of patronage; to seduce the very rich into being our patrons. If it was good enough for Shakespeare then it’s good enough for me.” Theatre has been pronounced as dead multiple times over and will no doubt live on to be declared dead many times again.
So how does Boyd see the future health of theatre in aesthetic terms? In short, very promising. There are three generations of excellent new writers, led by David Hare, Dennis Kelly and Dominic Cook. The emergence of ‘Immersive Theatre’ over the last ten years, with troops such as Punch Drunk and Shunt leading the way in a theatre that is starting to transcend its previous boundaries.
But the future always needs reinforcements. I asked Sir Michael what his advice would be for any budding student directors/producers. His response was to some extent expected, and it’s surely the only advice to give: “Do it, even on an absolute shoestring, but beware of assisting too much: you learn from doing […] and working with people who challenge you.”
What of the future for Sir Michael then? During our interview he revealed that he’d like to resurrect more of the unknown Russian repertoire that he has formerly delved into, and that, having had the compulsory grip of Shakespeare released, “what immediately interests me is contemporary writing”.
Perhaps slower, pure theatre will be the future, an antidote to the modern deluge of the hectic in our society. Or maybe the new theatre will reflect that deluge, and attempt to “accommodate the mess” as Samuel Beckett suggested. Whatever the case is for the future of theatre, the best way to know the future is to create it.