Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Content vs accessibility

18 November 2018

This is another thing I wrote a while back. It has some good thoughts:

Is the problem with theatre in its content, or its accessibility?

These are two different things, and we confuse the two. Sometimes, I hear that theatre should be more like Netflix or HBO. While I actually agree with this, it is a sort of broad comparison. Because Netflix does two things, and they do them extremely well: provide great, captivating content, and make it easy to access.

Theatre does both of these things not very well. They are two separate ideas and each needs to be worked on separately.

Content

The first is to create more captivating content for the stage. This is obviously a subjective thing, but there is a twofold problem I see here: plays not being uniquely theatrical, and plays having us turn off the critical brain.

Two people talking is not uniquely theatrical. Maybe two amazing actors talking is, but by itself it’s not. A play should be a play for a reason, and not a film or tv show .

Theatre should be compelling from the get go. With Netflix, you can turn on a new series and get sucked in without knowing much. You don’t need to turn off any part of your brain. The content is so good that you want to watch it, feel like it rips your guts out or makes you shake with laughter each time.

With theatre, sometimes there’s some work the audience has to do, to turn off a part of their brain that’s like “ok, this is a play, I need to lower my expectations a bit“. But this lets the audience off the hook. Anyone should be able to go to a production and be immediately engaged, not feel like there’s some mental hump they need to get over to be engaged.

Accessibility

A major problem in theatre of course is accessibility. Once you have a Netflix account (or your roommate’s password) all you need to do is click a show and start watching. With theatre, there’s so many barriers. First is price. Then there’s the actual act of the distance of going to the theatre. There’s putting on clothes. There’s reading about the play. There’s trying to find a good play to see.

The accessibility is low. The barrier of entry is far too high.

This is a tougher problem to fix in some ways, I think, than the content problem. New York has certainly failed at this almost inconceivably. Broadway is ridiculously inaccessible, though there are some definite steps to make it better. Student rush ticket policies usually aren’t terrible, and apps like TodayTix are actually helpful in nabbing tickets. (But it’s still way too expensive.) What, exactly, are we paying for? When I can watch something on Netflix that is better written, more diverse, more exciting?

The only conceivable way I can think of theatre not dying off (in a proverbial sense — there will always be an elite class who gets off on being politely bored) is for prices to lower, and accessibility to be greatly improved. That means more outreach, more workshops, more effective, exciting education programs, cheaper tickets, etc.

I admit that’s a difficult and larger thing. For a theatre who is doing an amazing job at this, look at Almeida Theatre, who has an “Almeida for Free” festival for under-25s to see their productions for free, and includes all sorts of incredible workshops. (It “sold out” pretty instantly, but that’s because of its unbelievable value. And this should be proof that this approach works.)

Creating amazing content and improving accessibility should be the ultimate duty to all people that make theatre right now, if theatre wants to survive.