BAC-chat: critics, audiences and the importance of the café bar

An interview with David Jubb, artistic director, BAC

Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) has just finished a mini-festival. For One Week Only was actually three weeks of one-week runs in February designed to showcase theatre companies from outside London. The festival was conceived with the intention of establishing an alternative to ‘the tyranny of the three-week run’ in fringe theatre, with all its incumbent financial risks, especially for companies coming from outside London.

This is very much in the spirit of BAC’s distinctive approach to making theatre, and part of a challenge to prevailing ideas about audiences, critics and the nature of theatre itself. Many London theatres insist that companies do three weeks of performances, since the press won’t cover shows with shorter runs. BAC’s artistic director David Jubb sees this dependence on the press and its publishing schedules as a suffocating influence on theatre. ‘This explains why new regional riches are not finding their way into London,’ he says.

Indeed, Jubb sees the stranglehold of theatre critics on audience opinion itself as unhealthy, even undemocratic, and is keen to develop new ways both of generating audiences and of stimulating critical discussion about theatre. Before taking over from Tom Morris as artistic director last year, Jubb was responsible for the ‘scratch’ programme at BAC. Scratch allows groups to try out new ideas in front of a sympathetic audience. As the BAC website describes it: ‘Audiences pay what they can for an evening of low-tech cabaret theatre where artists present work in its infancy, sometimes stopping in the middle for advice, always drinking in the cafe bar afterwards where the audience offer feedback.’

Each successful scratch production goes on from this through further stages of development, progressing from a rough idea to a more polished and assured final, or almost final, product. Having a small audience for the early stages not only helps producers and performers to identify what works and what doesn’t, but also generates a buzz around the work. Through word-of-mouth, a network emerges of what Jubb calls ‘stakeholders’, people with a sympathetic interest in the work, who will form the backbone of the audience for the final production. Although critics are not invited to review scratch performances, that buzz will tend to reach those critics likely to be interested in the type of production concerned, ensuring they are more ‘in tune’ when they do come to review the finished piece.

All this means the risk of failure, both commercial and critical, is greatly reduced. And the idea behind For One Week Only was that a similar model could make life easier for regional theatre companies coming to London. Rather than depending on the press, the festival encouraged a similar process of word-of-mouth publicity, appealing to the same sorts of networks that are drawn to scratch nights. (And if the worst comes to the worst, a one-week run makes failure much less expensive.)

Clearly this approach reflects a philosophy of what theatre should be as much as a strategy for realising it. BAC aims for a more populist model of theatre. ‘If theatre isn’t a popular art form, I don’t want to work in it,’ Jubb says. He acknowledges, however, that it isn’t quite. That he does want to work in theatre despite this indicates that he believes it’s possible to make it popular. One obstacle Jubb has identified is a critical culture in which audiences aren’t encouraged enough to think for themselves; he appeals for what he calls a ‘democratisation of feedback’. For Jubb at least, the critics’ claim to be theatrically or intellectually ‘correct’ is stifling.

Jubb points out that critics are more prominent in theatre than in film, for example. Certainly, regular theatre-goers are more likely to know the names of the leading critics than film-goers. In part, this may be because theatre-goers take the form more seriously, and want to engage with it on a deeper level. (Just as the minority of cinema-goers who read Sight and Sound, for example, do with film.) But I suspect Jubb is right that the prominence of critics in theatre is not entirely healthy. People do seem to be less confident about expressing their own opinions about theatre, more likely to defer to expert opinion.

Jubb sees something absurd in the way we read a review in the Guardian, for example, with such reverence. Imagine fifty or sixty people going to the café bar after a show, he says, and instead of discussing the show with each other, listening while one expert holds forth. It’s a clever analogy, meant not so much to attack critics as to lament the absence of a more ‘democratic’ forum, and to express the frustration of the unheard theatre-goer.

Indeed, that frustration is little abated in the opposite extreme: fifty or sixty people going to the café bar in groups of two or three and talking only to each other. And of course this is much closer to what actually happens in most theatres. This polarisation between detached professional criticism and private discussion is unfortunate too for those involved in the production, since they are unlikely to hear anything other than praise, sincere or otherwise, except from professional critics with whom there is little opportunity for dialogue. Creating more of a network, a community even, around a production, as BAC tries to, might mitigate this problem.

There is a limit, however, to how much this alternative can be understood as ‘democratisation’, since no community of meaningfully engaged individuals is entirely open. Jubb describes going to theatre openings when he first arrived in London from Bristol, and feeling utterly alienated by the rarified thespian atmosphere in the theatre bar at the interval. ‘I felt like I didn’t belong,’ he says. In contrast, ‘When you walk into a cinema it doesn’t matter who you are.’ It’s quite true that going to the cinema is a more straightforward experience; it’s hard to imagine anyone being intimidated by the atmosphere at the local UCI, but actually it’s questionable whether this is a suitable model for theatre.

BAC certainly doesn’t feel like a cinema. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, but it has to be said that it is also distinctly artsy and vaguely… vegetarian. The large wooden tables of the café bar are occupied mostly by identifiably fringy types. There are plenty of people who would feel that they don’t belong in a place like this. Perhaps I’m just grouchy, but I’m not sure I do. Nonetheless, that feeling of not belonging at least indicates that there exists a distinct social milieu to which one can not belong, and arguably such a milieu is essential to the sort of theatre to which Jubb aspires, one situated in a theatre scene, rather than being dependent on critics laying down the line to an atomised audience. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that some people will feel out of place. Ultimately ‘outsiders’ have to be persuaded by the quality of the work (as argued, dare I say it, by critics) to brave the discomfort of unfamiliar places.

If BAC doesn’t feel like a cinema, then, this is no bad thing. Jubb believes that theatre ought to do things that film and TV can’t, and part of that surely has to do with its relationship with the audience. Theatre is defined in part by the simultaneous presence of the audience and the performers, and BAC has a reputation for exploiting this to the full, sometimes, as in the recent Christmas show World Cup Final 1966, by involving the audience in the performance. That’s a prospect that strikes terror into the hearts of many non-theatre types, but Jubb insists theatre doesn’t have to be participative to be special. He credits Cartoon de Salvo, the group that opened the For One Week Only festival, with having developed something that was not at all interactive or participative, but which nonetheless made the audience feel ‘totally invested and complicit’.

In contrast to cinema (in practice if not necessarily in principle), theatre addresses aparticular audience, not necessarily in the sense of an elite, but certainly a group of people with more in common than where they happen to be sitting. ‘Any theatre that doesn’t acknowledge you’re there is pretty strange,’ Jubb says. And it is the ‘thereness’ of the audience in all its particularity that offers theatre an alternative source of critical authority, quite distinct from the newspaper-led model that currently prevails. Theatre goers who experience theatre as an audience and then talk amongst themselves are bound to be less in thrall to newspaper critics than those who simply experience theatre as individual consumers.

Critics can inform and add sophistication to such a discussion, and bring it to a wider audience, rather than themselves being the beginning and end of it. Far from being a threat to critics, then, BAC’s approach invites them to play a more meaningful role, and it’s certainly one favoured by Culture Wars. We look forward to many more innovative festivals and other experiments involving audiences and fostering discussion, in Battersea and beyond.

First published on Culture Wars.