What is theatre anyway?

Today I feel like I need to write about theatre, and what it is, and what it might be, and what I think it should be.

I feel I need to write about this, to understand it better for myself. A manifesto of sorts.


This is not entirely out of the blue, several things have happened in several recent days that have led me to have to ask this question again, I am reminded of the first essay title set to me as a theatre student in 2005 – ‘what is art?’

On Thursday I took a group to see two pieces of dance, their responses to what they saw interested me, scared me and challenged me. I hadn’t quite predicted their response and as I am to be working with this organisation and client group to make work and think about how to support and programme the artistic activity they make and are part of, it is vital to me as both an artist and practitioner to be responsive to their needs rather than impose what I think they need. Whilst also remaining true to my needs and artistic integrity. Community arts are much harder (yet perhaps infinitely more rewarding) than may be assumed from an outside perspective.


So I left on Thursday evening questioning what I knew and how best to use what I know to begin a new conversation with the community I’ve been employed to make work with. I was reminded of ‘theatre 101’ a beginners class which is emblematic of the work I developed with Converge. A class which begins with Peter Brook’s (perhaps overly quoted) assertion:

I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

This is where I begin again, as I begin re-reading his book ‘The Empty Space’ and finding again sources of inspiration of what theatre is, and what it could be.


I am in Bournemouth, a place where there are no producing houses, much of the receiving theatres here are clearly programmed with a bums on seats, blue rinse and tourist type mentality. With the exception of Pavilion Dance South West  there is virtually no new work and very few risks being taken.


Arguably much onstage here isn’t theatre but light entertainment, and the theatre which is shown is arguably of Peter Brook’s ‘Deadly Theatre’.

Theatre is a dialogue, a conversation. Theatre can be a dialogue, a conversation.

Good theatre, that which reflects its community, which speaks to those who watch.
And those who watch, rather than sit in silence waiting to be told, instead strain to hear.


This theatre, this good theatre is a conversation with the community it serves. It reflects their stories, their issues, their difficulties; it does not tell the classics and the well known texts, it does not rely on script and sound told a thousand times so no one can remember any longer why they are there, why they are listening – other than they thought they ought to be there.

This theatre, like the books I buy because I think I should’ve read them (Paradise Lost, The Odessey…etc) this theatre will eventually die. It serves no one because it preaches in Latin to a congregation that neither can, nor wishes to understand a dead language.


Although here I sit, with my Masters degree typing about what I, in my educated position believe theatre is. How do I begin to serve the theatre in this new community, how can I play my part it making it vital, lively and loved?

Today I saw for myself the Shelley Manor theatre and my mind began to wander again… here is a space about to breath new life into one of the most deprived areas of England, people in Boscombe are wide and varied, much like the history of the place.


Outside the local Wetherspoons I’ve observed men in pale denim jeans shout revelries towards each other at 11am on a Tuesday morning, I’ve seen women with prams pushing babies and chatting Polish, I’ve heard market traders extoll the virtue of the place, I’ve seen yummy mummys and young women with well spoken accents sip cappuccinos in the bohemian coffee houses, whilst outside on the street an addict scours the ground for the useful ends of partially smoked cigarettes.


Any theatre here, and vital theatre here perhaps needs to ask of itself, who is our community?

After leaving the theatre today I sat and thought long and hard about all of these fragments and considerations and I reflected that walking to the theatre today I’d seen young men in caps and tracksuit bottoms, overweight women in jumpsuits with broods of children, yet walking around the theatre day, white, middle class, middle age, well to do types.


Now this isn’t a criticism; affluent, cultured communities get things done.

We give a damn, we letter write, we turn up and give our time for free, for the causes we care about. But I have to wonder if a theatre in Boscombe, a community theatre, needs to widen its reach if it to be truly successful and find a way in which asks everyone to come inside and to take this theatre as its own.

IMG_4264I may even go as far as to suggest every theatre across the country should be asking this question of itself…. and for the love of theatre, no more shall we hear the cry of ‘a handbag‘, can anyone remember why it was relevant in the first place or are we still simply filling our theatres, like I fill my bookshelves – with things I think make me look educated, cultured and respected.

Why do we go to the theatre?  What is theatre?

Theatre is a conversation that demands of its creators to listen and reflect back the stories its community needs to hear.


Theatre is a conversation in which its audience and community listen to hear, they don’t always expect to be entertained, rather they come for that unique and vital fleeting moment that happens in space and time, live, between people when suddenly something quite unspeakable is understood.


This is my theatre.

I will close with a little more Peter Brook, as I read this quote today (p.43) I smiled in recognition of the question I constantly ask myself when producing work by other communities: How can shape a performance in such a way that allow’s their voices not just to be listened to, but demands that they are heard?

When I hear a director speaking glibly of serving the author, of letting a play speak for itself, my suspicions are aroused, because this is the hardest job of all. If you just let a play speak it may not make a sound. If what you want is for the play to be heard, then you must conjure a sound from it.


FOOTNOTE: [I perhaps conveniently or idealistically am omitting to mention money, affluent bums on seats create more profit, although I am still to understand why it is always assumed that affluent bums on seats will only watch that which they were taught was right to watch.]

Photographs of Shelley Theatre – Author’s own work.

3 thoughts on “What is theatre anyway?

  1. KS: Just read it, thoroughly enjoyed reading. “Bums on seats” theatre is in every town, in almost every theatre and certainly comes from the need to make money and fill theatres. I feel that often theatre doesn’t reflect the community and only appeals to a certain “type” of audience (without trying to mean it in a stereotypical way), a passive audience looking to be entertained. Every year I pick up the programme for the local theatre and every year I am disappointed to see the same drivel. Arts funding cuts perhaps don’t help the situation, its far too risky to change what local theatres are so used to and to change what they know sells. I completely agree that theatre should be a conversation with the community it serves reflecting their stories, issues etc, but how to draw in a diverse community who don’t just want a night of passive entertainment?

  2. RK: I am a cynic these days and view theatre as a form of trade. I once thought it was more organic and accidental, but no career can be sustained on something so unreliable or sporadic.
    I like theatre that is deliberate and considered. Something that demonstrates craft and showman ship, and a bit of self reference makes me smile.
    I don’t want to see endless reimagining’s of some one else ‘s work. I invest in theatre makers’ perspectives and i want them to teach me something i didn’t know about myself or the world at large.
    This is all of course my opinion and entirely subjective, but this is largely what your question ‘What is Theatre’ boils down to. Taste.
    I am also a ‘theatre person’ and enjoy things about theatre i don’t expect my audience to consider. The emotional battles we struggle with every project for example; not in terms of coordination…which is proper gash…but in relation to the material and the way you intend to present it, and how you sit in context and relation to it.
    I watch theatre now looking for signs of the topical impact on the performers if i know them…its real, beautiful and fascinating!
    That, very reduced, is my instinctive response…xx

  3. KT: Lovely to read and full of fire, that.

    I was particularly taken by a sneaky subtext in there, one regarding certain relationships between the death of classics and class/type/sort/kind/kin. Mothers with their broods …

    I suppose that there’s another big question under all of this – about money and relationships with money as well as where, when, how and why it is or isn’t found (like theatre) in or outside of various communities.

    Check out Theaster Gates and his exploration/explosion of projects around ideas of urban librarianship and performance space architecture.


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