Risk Taking Theatre

Every single person in the arts industry is born risky. From the directors to the stage managers, the costume designers to the actors. We made the risky decision to go into an industry that is over-saturated, underfunded, underpaid and constantly fluctuating because we felt the risk would be worth it. It had to be taken because we had something we needed to say that only the creative industry could give us the platform for. Then why, in startling homage to the collapsing rep system of the 80’s and 90’s, does risk taking theatre seem to have the ‘risk’ missing, and how can we change that?

For large, established theatres risk is akin to poor turnover. I’m sure that every artistic director in the country would love to have a programme full of vibrant and sometimes edgy theatre, because that is what they want their theatre to be about. However, it is much safer to programme well-known shows that audiences feel comfortable with. A Shakespeare, a bit of naturalism; maybe throw in a Chekov for good measure. Theatres need to understand that they can’t guess what the audience wants. The audience wants to be surprised. Productions that are safe and well-worn, that wouldn’t look amiss in a repertory theatre in the 80’s don’t represent how far the arts has come on in the last 40 years and if the arts is to ‘hold a mirror up to society’ then we are failing to show how society has changed too.

For the actors, directors and theatre-makers of tomorrow, there is nothing holding you back from taking risks. Fringe theatre was born from risk, every fringe festival in the world from Edinburgh to Prague is full of exciting, beautiful risk-taking theatre. And this is how they do it…

They have a clear unique voice

At places like the Edinburgh fringe, with over 3000 pieces of theatre, being an individual makes you stand out. Half of the risk is to stand out and try something different that may alienate your audience. Superbolt Theatre, a Lecoq trained ensemble, venture to the Fringe this year with The Jurassic Parks – an impromptu and highly physical retelling of Jurassic Park through the eyes of a grieving family. It’s unique, different, and has received acclaim wherever it has gone.

They have a strong message

The world is in a difficult place, social media has made us closer than ever, yet so many things attempt to drive us apart. The best risk taking theatre brings us together again around a common topic. What topics need discussing? How can you educate the audience? Last year, the Liverpool Everyman hosted a touring production called Queens of Syria, a collection of 13 female Syrian refugees discussing the Greek play The Women of Troy and how their lives relate to it. It made the audience see these women as individuals, and understand what they had left behind in their country.

Everything is for the audience

It is an easy trap to fall into. In the creative process, the message is lost or the voice becomes muffled, and what started out as the creatives trying to empower the audience, has fallen into a self-absorbed production that is meaningless and takes itself too seriously. One of the productions where the audience leaves muttering “I have no clue what I have just watched”. The greatest risk in theatre is to open yourself up to the audience completely, and risk ruin. During rehearsals for Conquest of the South Pole”, Nick Bagnall, the associate director of the Liverpool Everyman wrote this for his actors to see…

Nick Bagnall Tweet
Source: Nick Bagnall’s Twitter.

Being superficial has never worked in theatre, and it definitely does not have a place in risk taking theatre. At a time when the more established theatres are trying to juggle costs, and targets and consumers, it’s more important than ever that there are creatives dedicated to pushing the boundaries and feeding the audience need for bold theatre. The William Arthur Ward poem springs to mind:

“To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.”

Elliott Reeves Giblin

Elliott is a writer for How To Do Theatre, and is particularly interested in Fringe Theatre and new writing. A graduate of the YEP Actors course, he enjoys acting, directing and writing; but when not involved in all things theatrical he is off Kayaking or white water rafting.