DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: Music in Theatre

This column was originally published here.

This month Emma Jane Denly speaks to Tom Penn of Little Bulb Theatre, who are currently in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre. She plays devil‘s advocate with the question of music’s purpose in theatre…

TP: Music is one of the most powerful means of communication we possess. It has the power to overwhelm and to be delicate, to sentimentalise and to be ironic. When used with due care and attention, it has the faculty to transcend immediate thought, and access a deeper, often surprisingly emotional, response. An enormous amount of my time is spent accompanied by music, be it the ‘soundtrack to my life’ that happens to be buzzing around inside my head at the time, or the more tangible mp3 player, squeezing the same old songs into my ears as I board the 345 to Peckham. Why? Because I enjoy my life more when there is music playing. Subsequently I find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine a reason I would have for not including music in my work in theatre.

EJD: Perhaps there’s a case for arguing that music has the power to distract as well as complement, in both your own life and indeed in theatrical productions. Pick the wrong song and the effect can be as small as creating a slightly jarring scene on-stage that doesn’t fit with the rest of the show or as large as being totally alienating for an audience. You wake up and accidentally play one of Enya’s less upbeat tracks through your headphones: rest of the day is then potentially overshadowed by a sense of depressive doom (no offence intended to Enya). Play a rock song in the middle of a show, and all delicacy is sent crashing to the floor. If these effects are intended, then fair enough, but isn’t all music subjective? How can you make an entire audience react in the same way?

TP: I’m not sure that you can, but I certainly don’t see that as a consideration to be taken only with music. I would suggest that any aspect of any theatre show will be viewed subjectively, and therefore it is the theatre-maker’s responsibility to understand and appreciate this, whilst using everything they have at their disposal in order to best serve the moment. When approaching a new piece of work, you come armed with your full toolkit, and you try your best to use those tools wisely. Music is just one of the means we have with which to communicate, and is as valuable to the process as any other. It comes hand in hand with the text, or the movement, or the design – there is no reason one should be separated of given greater significance than the others. If given careful thought and artistically driven, the music will form as vital part of any narrative or atmosphere as any other discipline.

EJD: Do you think then that this kind of music is different to the “conventional” type – and I use this phrase carefully, meaning only music that is not intended for narrative effect – or whether it is the same as something that we can buy or listen to on its own terms? It’s almost as though you are implying that music in theatre is a precise and exact science (the same way perhaps lighting or choreography can be viewed as such), which could make it seem artificial – or failing that then at least oppressed in some way. Do you think that theatre-music is its own art-form – or could it be listened to in the same way as Queen, Fairport Convention or – yes, I’m going there – Enya?

TP: I don’t think that an exact science exists for making music or any kind of theatre. I think there are guidelines available if you want them, but once you get past a certain point, you’re out there on your own. You try something different, something new, in the hope that it will be what you want it to be, and then as long as you learn a little bit each time, you’ll be ready to have another go soon enough. As for whether theatre music is its own art form, I’m not so certain that it can be categorised that neatly. Yes, when used for a specific purpose in a piece of theatre, that music must be precisely what was asked for and needed in that moment, whether newly composed or a well-known classic. But that’s not to say it doesn’t retain individual worth when removed from context. Take Kneehigh‘s ‘Don John’ Soundtrack – I can’t get enough of those tracks still, however many years later. I know the scores and soundtracks to countless films and shows I haven’t seen. I adore the music, and that’s it. Ultimately, in the context of the show or film itself, if that music does not serve the very moment for which it was intended, then it hasn’t fulfilled its purpose, and the final product was probably weaker for it. But there’s nothing to stop me from enjoying it separately – much like I can be satisfied, impressed and even moved by the way natural lighting occurs within a particular environment at any point in my day, music serves a multitude of purposes. Its use in theatre should be treated with the same thought and precision as every other aspect of the production, and when it works, it has the ability to colour and to lift that moment to an altogether new height. The rest of the time, it should just be worth listening to.

EJD: So theatre-music is perhaps just made to fit its definition by the selection process: the artistry lies in the ability of the theatre-maker to select and refine a piece of music for a particular theatrical moment that is utterly appropriate. I’m sure the wave of other companies who take music in theatre very seriously – Kneehigh, RashDash, Third Angel – would be inclined to agree.

Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus runs at BAC from 16 April – 11 May, and Tom is performing his solo work at Cambridge Junction’s SAMPLED Festival on Sunday 5 May.




This column was originally published here.

Emma Jane Denly begins a brand new monthly blog Devil’s Advocate, a regular provocation about topical or controversial issues.

This month she plays devil’s advocate with the topic of nepotism, with a theatre professional who wishes to remain anonymous.

EJD: Nepotism has always been one of those issues that theatrical types just don’t want to tackle. The injustice of one person being promoted above other candidates due to a helping hand – particularly when the benefited individual doesn’t appear to be as talented as or even vaguely interested in the job at stake – is a testy subject. If you and I, similarly placed in a competitive and over-subscribed industry, were ever to be offered a break by a friend or relative, we would be morally challenged. Conversely, if this never happens and we declaim “THAT’S NOT FAIR”, our statement could be professionally disadvantageous: the likelihood of offending a prospective employer, in whatever field, is high, as nepotism is so rife.

Is there more than one type of nepotism – the fair type and the unfair type, or are there some cases where being “helped along” is acceptable? Finally, is nepotism in all its manifestations empirically bad? Can we comfortably holler that we are “holier than thou”?

Anon: There’s a murky distinction between nepotism and advocacy that makes this issue very complicated. Nepotism is the advancement of someone related to you, whereas advocacy is, in theory, meritocratic. Fair or unfair nepotism? The employment of anyone in any job who doesn’t merit the position should be seen as unfair. It fundamentally is, IF we want to believe that those who ‘get their foot in the door’ of professional theatre deserve it. However, we don’t seem especially committed to this view of our industry. This is usually because most of the people in the industry, including myself, can point to a time when they were given an opportunity they don’t feel they deserved. All this gives us a wonderful freedom; if we’re all in the gutter together then no one can call ‘holier than thou’.

EJD: So you’re saying we all need to get out of this “gutter” of friendly recommendation and the occasional leg-up… And where does this revolution start? At what point do you say, no, I don’t want that job at, say, the Globe because I only got my foot into the interview room because a friend of mine propped the door open? You’re already having to write under “anonymous” because of what you call the non-meritocratic tendencies of the industry – somewhat playing into the system itself – so I’m inclined to say that you must agree that some parts of it are useful or you’d come out and defy it directly.

In your dream world, then, if there were to be a solution, what sort of procedures would you count as acceptable?

Anon: I’m writing anonymously to preserve the principle of what I’m trying to say. I don’t want my entire argument wiped away when someone says, “ah, but you were given such and such an opportunity”. My career has been aided and advocated by several people. I’d like to say it was all down to my talent (and it is true that I’m not related to those advocates) but I admit the truth is it’s probably 50% luck.

The principle is: it shouldn’t be up to us. We have neither the voice, influence or money to reform the system from where we are. The best we can do is to say that when we get to the top of the ladder we’ll treat those below us better – but of course at that point the catch 22 is already in effect; we’ve reaped the rewards before pointing out our unethical behaviour along the way.

What procedures would I like to see put in place? Cover letter, CV, interview. The Young Vic does this and they have the best training directors – a peculiar correlation? I think not.

EJD: So, institutions like the Young Vic that have the money and the resources to interview and sort the presumably massive quantity of applications for their directors’ scheme are behaving correctly, and you’re saying that anyone with the same facilities available should do the same? OK.

What about employers who can offer similarly wonderful opportunities, exposure or projects who don’t have the time or money? Examples of that kind of altruistic procedure amongst theatre practitioners working at theatres with less funding, or even working out of their living rooms, are few and far between. I don’t believe many unpaid directors would sit through even 60 auditions after posting an open casting call – and we both know that applications would be ten times this – if they knew they could ask one of their friends to take the role. What you are proposing as a solution to nepotism is limited to very few places, and therefore I don’t think your proposed revolution will ever seed itself.

Anon: Again we’re blurring the line between recommendation and nepotism.  If a director has an actor/actress they’ve worked with previously who is perfect for the part, then it’s a simple hiring choice. It’s when someone is given a similar opportunity because their father/mother/uncle/aunt/godfather etc. is involved that the situation becomes unfair. I accept it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between these, but we must at least try.

Budgetary requirements are so small as to be irrelevant. We are not talking about thousands being spent for these processes to go in place. It’s not an insurmountable task even for small theatres; theatres already doing so include the New Diorama, The Gate and The Finborough.

My point is this: we are holding ourselves to a depressingly low standard. Personal relationships are not always malevolent forces of corruption. Advocacy of talented youngsters can ensure that the right people get the right opportunity at the right time. However, our commitment to fair and honest application procedures as a mandatory requirement is flimsy at best. This is doing the industry damage – it breeds insular artistic vision as well as debasing our belief in our own talent.

EJD: Perhaps it is a case of cornerstone institutions leading by example. I don’t think that this excuses us, however, from any behaviour that could be dubbed nepotistic – and this is defined differently by different people. Therefore you, and I, and anyone else wanting this increased vigilance will have to act accordingly. The phrase “squeaky-clean” comes to mind. In the public forum, I’m sure that there are some who think that the line between nepotism and simply choosing a friend for a task is not as clean-cut as you perceive it.

  • What are your thoughts on nepotism? Do you have any thoughts on the definition of the issue, and are there any cases where nepotism is acceptable?

The Star Ratings Debate

The Star Ratings Debate

Originally published on A Younger Theatre, Monday 8th October.

Emma Jane Denly and Daniel Hutton discuss the issue of star ratings in theatre – what are the benefits and limitations of star ratings? Is there an alternative to this much-used method of ranking theatre?

EJD: On my return from Edinburgh this September, it has become increasingly obvious that there is a discrepancy between star ratings up at the Fringe – or the star ratings from what we could loosely call ‘Fringe reviewers’ – and those that can be found in London or national publications. Clearly, this makes for a confusing message: when theatre-goers need to choose where to go and what to see, they may be given conflicting advice by different publications. Is this a big issue, or does the bulk of the problem actually lie in the way we ‘grade’ theatre in this linear way? Perhaps, somewhere out there there is an alternative solution that suits theatres, reviewers and ticket-buyers alike – a replacement system that is more highly nuanced to the qualities and form of each piece of theatre, rather than relying on a rather basic linear scheme.

DH: Firstly, I’d like to put my cards on the table by saying that I’m firmly against star ratings. I think they commodify theatre where is shouldn’t be commodified and reduce years of hard work to a simple number. Theatre companies don’t like them and reviewers (on the whole) don’t like them; the only people who are really ‘for’ star ratings are marketing departments. I think the issue lies with the differences in opinion about who theatre criticism is designed for: the company, the audience or another entity. I’m of the opinion that criticism isn’t for either; its purpose is to record events as the writer sees them and add to a wider cultural discourse. It’s obviously difficult, however, for one company or publication to stop using them, as this would mean a dent in sales. I therefore propose a blanket ban on star ratings. We’d learn to cope very quickly.

EJD: A dent in sales is one thing, but the inability to work out what is worth seeing and what isn’t actually very good is another. The problem with removing the entire system is that not only do we lose the ability to create fiscal value (and I’m really out of my depth here with these economic terms) but we also lose the ability to circulate the artistic values of the production. Unfortunately, what the star ratings do is make it very quick and easy for punters to select shows: shows that are not only worth their money but also their time. The sad fact is that people would rather have an immediate, easily digestible response than read an entire 400 word review.

DH: Again, I think this comes down to differing opinions as to what the purpose of criticism is. I think it’s sad that we have to talk about shows being more ‘valuable’ than others and objectively ‘better’; that’s just not possible. Jerusalem was adored by the press, but I still know people who didn’t enjoy it. Art is inherantly subjective and personal, and we shouldn’t be placing value systems like stars on it. I just don’t see what’s wrong in reading a review; it’ll take a few minutes longer than looking at stars and, in any case, if you’re thinking about going to see the show you’re likely to read what people have said about it anyway. I agree that some people feel like they need to know what to go and see and enjoy having someone they can trust to guide them in the right direction, but then word of mouth often leads to the discovery of exciting productions. I just think we need to reassess what we believe theatre and criticism is for – by wrenching it away from its perception as a market system. And the first way to do that is to get rid of stars.

EJD: I’d like to propose that there are alternative solutions. If you look at Fringe Biscuit, and other pioneers of alternative reviewing (Pinterest is an interesting one – there’s definitely possibility there if that visual form of reviewing is honed) it’s clear that there are indeed ways of making the nuances, faults and positives of each production available in a digestible form. I’m not saying that full reviews should be scrapped completely – as you say, people do still read full reviews and they are fundamental to theatre-makers as outlets of constructive criticism – but rather there needs to be an accompanying measuring system that is more complex than star ratings. The English language is full of synonyms – even three words have the potential to encompass a production far better than a number. If you were to ‘title’ the production as ‘fizzy, pulse-racing, apocalyptic’, the readership immediately know that the production is good; that it’s probably a thriller and it’s probably about the end of the world.

DH: Ok, so if we accept that, for the benefit of the audience, some kind of value system is necessary (I still reject that somewhat, but I’ll go along with it), then what we need is a system which acknowledges subjectivity and allows for nuance. Initially, I thought the review system used at IGN could be useful. They use a long-form system which goes into depth about the game being reviewed before concluding with a rating system which gives different points for presentation, graphics, sound, gameplay and lasting appeal before finding an average. Obviously, those aspects would have to change for theatre, but it’s worth a go. Perhaps even better, however, is a reviews aggregate website like Rotten Tomatoes, which pulls lots of reviews together to come up with an overall mark.

I’ve recently found out that CultureCritic uses a ‘Critometer’ to do a similar thing for theatre – pulling together reviews to put percentages on shows, allowing audiences to decide whether or not they should see it. That way, practitioners and critics can find more nuance in reviews, while audiences can determine which shows they see based on a mixture of reading the critics they trust and consulting this website. This is still a form in its early stages and needs to pull together a wider selection of blogs and reviews from outside the mainstream in order to be useful. I also think the focus should be on words rather than stars, but the notion still stands. It’s far from ideal – I’ll fight star ratings and the commodification of theatre until the day I die – but there may be a happy medium to be found there.

EJD: I think at the moment, our best chance at revolution is going to be the ‘happy medium’, as you call it. A total overhaul is the ideal, the current situation is unfair – shooting somewhere between the two is where we’ll have to leave the debate. As long as we pact to avoid star ratings wherever we can – perhaps the future will be sparkly in a new and exciting way.

Ticketing Problems

Ticketing Problems

Originally published on A Younger Theatre, Friday 21st September.

In a month where two major theatre institutions have announced changes to their ticketing systems, the problems with the availability of tickets for London’s most popular shows triggered an interesting discussion between theatre blogger Dan Hutton and me. Is it a class problem? A money problem? Or is it a problem for everyone?

If, for instance, you fancy seeing Choir Boy (Royal Court), Last of the Hausmann’sThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or This House (all National Theatre), Philadelphia, Here I Comeat the Donmar or the ever-popular Matilda this week, you simply can’t. These are in-demand shows that are either produced by major houses or have star names attached to them. They sell out in seconds – or in the case of the long-awaited Goold/Prebble collaboration at the Cottlesloe, they sell out before the tickets have even gone on general release.

Historically, theatres have done very well at making tickets easily available to their members, to local residents (think the Lyric Hammersmith and the Soho) and to students and young people – such as the RSC Key and the NT Entry Pass – but the fact remains that it appears to be a lot more difficult once you hit the big 25. What do you do then?

I’d like to think that young professionals who are interested in the arts would pursue a career in the industry – an industry that is notoriously badly paid and increasingly reliant on donations from corporate or charitable foundations – and would continue to want to watch the best of British theatre in the second half of their twenties, and into their thirties. At the moment, the best shows simply aren’t affordable for this demographic: you end up paying a premium one way or another, either by donating your time or your cash for the privilege.

The Royal Court’s recent announcement of the ticketing system for Jez Butterworth’s new play, The River, throws the problem into perspective. To get a ticket to this production, you can go to website at 9am online or the box office at 10am on the day of the performance. Whilst Butterworth has said that he is happy for The River to go elsewhere after its premier, this new decision has made it rather difficult for anyone with a job to access the tickets, and barred anyone living outside commuting distance from seeing the show at all. Unless, of course, you fancy going down the Broadway route and paying people to queue for you – if you can afford such a luxury.

Perhaps the solution is in schemes that reward the most savvy (and, one would hope, most interested) theatre-goers. The Donmar’s most recent innovation is a fantastic step towards solving the problem. The Stage quotes Josie Rourke, Artistic Director, as saying: “Price is a barrier to access, there’s no getting round that. For me and for Kate, it’s very important to us to [give a] clear offer that says to people that you can get into this theatre, you can get in for a reasonable amount of money and you can get a decent view.” All you have to do is remember to buy your tickets two weeks in advance. Two weeks, ten pounds, front row. You just have to know the programme and set your calendar to remind you.

There is no point, it seems to me, in creating a young theatregoing population who are able to see Tennant’s Hamlet, Corden’s One Man, Two Guv’nors and Rylance’s Jerusalem when they are students, who then can’t see anything in the powerhouses of British theatre for the next decade of their life. It feels as though we have been lured into a false sense of theatrical security: we’re given the best value seats, but only for a few years, until we are unceremoniously barred from the theatre until we can become ultra-deluxe-premium-members who have access to priority booking, alongside a comfortable seven-figure salary.

I’m not saying that all good theatre happens at the National – I think in fact that the increase in the quality of fringe and off-West End productions is testament to the against-the-odds wonderful response to cuts in Arts Council England funding and a dwindling average expendable income. What perhaps should be taken into account, however, is that young people – all people – have a right to access the incredible productions and facilities that the funded institutions have. Rather than charging a returning concessionary audience more than a full price ticket – i.e. the ticket price plus anything you have to pay to make sure you get one – loyalty and proactive theatre-going should be rewarded.

Schemes such as the new Barclays Front Row at the Donmar represent a move towards finding new ways to fill the needs of an educated demographic that is hungry for more. We are the new Bright Young Things – and just because we’re broke, it doesn’t mean we’re not interested.