Everyone Theatre is a series of interviews with leading theatre practitioners in London. It’s their chance to make the case for getting into theatre, on either side of the curtain.
This podcast series aims to look for ways to involve more and more people in theatre, either as audiences or practitioners. This episode features Dawn Reid, who is Deputy Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Hear her speak about how important it is for venues to work with their local communities, why audiences need to feel like they can be themselves at the theatre, and why the Theatre Royal Stratford East allows people to use Twitter during performances in some sections of the auditorium.
Listen to the podcast using the player below, subscript to the series on iTunes, or read through the transcript below. Please feel free to leave comments at the bottom of the page!
Everything Theatre: Hello and welcome to episode 9 of Everyone Theatre, our podcast series focusing on inclusivity within theatre. I’m delighted to be speaking to Dawn Reid, who is the Deputy Artistic Director at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us! The first question is about you – could you give us a summary of how you came to work in the theatre industry and how you became Deputy Artistic Director here?
Dawn Reid: For me, it all started when I was at school. I had a great drama teacher, who is still one of my best friends today, and from there I discovered that I really enjoyed Theatre. I was in a theatre company, did loads of productions, and loved the background, the stage management side as well as the performing. Once I left school, I eventually had a think about what I wanted to do, and realised that Theatre was something I really loved. I found a job here at the Theatre Royal as a box office assistant. Philip Hedley, who was Artistic Director at the time, plucked me out, and I was able to work in the Marketing office doing outreach. Then I worked for a company here called The Posse, and after going to Uni, I came back with my degree, and have been here ever since!
ET: So during your career here at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, you must have seen a lot of great shows! Do you have any one that stands out in your memory which you’d like to share with us?
DR: Actually, there was one, which dates back to before I even started working here. The first time I visited this theatre was with school, and we saw a show called the Project, which was from Chicago. It was a musical extravaganza, but different, with Hip-Hop. It was a real mix, something I hadn’t seen before. I was thrown, it was amazing and so exciting, particularly because it was a black cast on stage. Another element was the warmth of the theatre: the moment I walked through the door, I felt safe. I felt like I wanted to be here.
ET: And that is so important: one thing we often come across in these interviews is that one way to get more people involved is to make sure that growing up, they feel like they are welcome in a theatre. It needs to feel like somewhere that they can go, and I guess the Theatre Royal Stratford East really has that atmosphere!
“[The Audience] need to know that theatre is for them, that this is somewhere they can come to and be themselves”
DR: It is really important to us, and it is something which doesn’t come overnight. Trust needs to be built up. The audience needs to come here knowing what they are going to get. They need to know they can walk through that door and be greeted by great front of house staff who can have a laugh with them, but who can also show them where they need to be. They need to know that theatre is for them, that this is somewhere they can come to and be themselves. That’s hugely important when trying to get new audiences into the Theatre.
ET: If you were to come across someone who was in two minds about buying tickets to se a show, or considering joining their local drama society or even getting a part time job in a theatre, what would be your pitch? Why do you think theatre is so great?
DR: Really, I think that theatre is an experience that you can learn from. It can challenge you, it can make you laugh, it can put a smile on your face. You might go into a theatre feeling down and come out with a huge smile, or a thought, or a change in the way you think. The most important thing about theatre is that it can change lives – and I really believe that. To be part of theatre is to be part of an establishment where anyone, no matter your class, or your race or your origin, can come and have a voice. And if you want that voice, you can come and get it.
“To be part of theatre is to be part of an establishment where anyone, no matter your class, or your race or your origin, can come and have a voice. “
ET: When we were planning this podcast, we spent a chilly November afternoon walking around Covent Garden and the Southbank asking people about their theatre habits. It they weren’t regular theatre goers, we asked them what was stopping them from going. We boiled down the responses into three main reasons that people don’t get involved as audience members. The first is the most obvious – the conception that theatre is an expensive hobby. What are your thoughts about that?
DR: Well, it can be expensive, but really it’s no more expensive than going to the cinema! Equally, you’re likely to spend at least £15 if you are going out to a bar or a club. People need to remember that like those things, theatre is an entertainment, which is something that you pay for. None the less, yes, it can be expensive but there are lots of different initiatives in various venues to try and bring that cost down. For example, the National Theatre have their £12 Travelex Ticket scheme. For us it is a very important topic: we know that there is a very low engagement with theatre in our area, so we try our best to keep our ticket prices as low as we possibly can. Our top price ticket is rarely above £20, and that’s for a great seat in our beautiful old Victorian auditorium, and there are always concession prices. It’s like everything these days – everything is a bit tighter financially, so you go out looking for bargains. People are increasingly looking around, researching theatres on the internet to see what kind of deals are out there. Those deals exist, you can find them.
ET: Quite right, and actually that leads on to the next point: you might do a lot of shopping around and then realise there are many, many theatres in London. It can be quite a daunting choice! Where would you suggest people start?
DR: I think the best place is to start at your local theatre. See what they are offering, because many theatres do try to gauge what the local community around them is interested in and fill up their programme accordingly. So definitely check out your local venue, and see if their shows are for you. Not everything they put on will be to your taste, but it is a good place to start. After that, you can begin looking for things that you like. Many venues specialise in one thing or another, so if you like Comedy there are theatres which can offer that, or if you are a fan of Shakespeare you can find theatres where that is a big focus. There are so many venues in London that there is definitely going to be one so suit your needs!
ET: Finally, there is a group of people who don’t go because they feel theatre isn’t something for them. Maybe they got dragged to a dreadful production when they were at school, and rather than being inspired like you were, they though “this is terrible – I am never doing this again”. How do you convince those people to give theatre another try? And how do we prevent that from happening in the future?
“It is really important for venues to look into their communities – they need to ask themselves what they can do to inspire locals and get them through the door. Is the door right? Do they feel they want to come through that door in the first place? Are you offering them work that they want to see?”
DR: Trying to convince those people is challenging. You need to ask them what it is that puts them off, and evaluate that first of all. If they had a bad experience at school, we need to say “Well, that was school, how about trying it again now? How about trying a type of theatre which you are interested in, which is directly relevant to you?”. Maybe they like songs, so a musical would be a good place to start, or maybe they like stories, so straight plays would be a better option. Whatever their interests are, we need to start there, and entice them that way. In terms of prevention of bad experiences, that really starts at a young age. I am a real believer in young people and bringing them on board as early as possible. For example, drama in schools: I was very lucky when I was young, because we had some fantastic companies coming to us. It is amazing how much that influences you. Here at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, we also have a young actors company, which allows for some exciting peer-to-peer work too. Getting young people to put on their shows here can be really inspiring to others who are at school. Finally, it is really important for venues to look into their communities – they need to ask themselves what they can do to inspire locals and get them through the door. Is the door right? Do they feel they want to come through that door in the first place? Are you offering them work that they want to see? We had an initiative last year called Open Stage where we “opened our doors” and reached out to our community to ask them what they wanted, what they would like to see on stage, what they thought we were doing right or wrong. In a sense we were really breaking down that fourth wall, and allowing people to come through.
ET: One thing that might have come out of that is an initiative which I picked up on last time I was here. It’s the fascinating idea of allowing people to use Twitter while in the auditorium. How did that come about?
DR: That was something which our current artistic director came up with while thinking of new ways to reach out to our audiences. Social media is an increasingly important aspect of our lives, and we wanted to embrace it, so we tried to figure out how it could become part of our work. So we just started bringing it in. We contained it to specific rows within the auditorium, and we called them Tweet Zones, where people can tweet their thoughts about what is going on stage, and have that conversation. The audiences we have here are really fantastic, and will talk about what is going on onstage because (hopefully!) they are really engaged – and tweeting allows them to do that in a slightly different way, a way that they feel comfortable with. We also use Twitter in our post-show discussions, where we have a big screen on stage which functions as a tweet wall. This allows people to tweet questions, thoughts and feelings. Sometimes people don’t like to put their hands up or talk loudly, so it’s just another way to engaging people, allowing them to take part in a way which is more familiar to them.
ET: Now, we’ve spoken about audience members, so now let’s chat about practitioners. There a a lot of young creative teams trying to make it in the industry. Are there any tips you would like to share?
DR: Well, firstly, if you’re trying to make it in Theatre you’ve got to really believe it it. You’ve got to really want it. There are going to be times when it is really hard, especially if you are freelancing and trying to pay the bills. You need to believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. Also, if you are an actor, you will have trained in some way, shape or form: use it. Go give workshops – that will keep in tip-top form with your work and will hopefully get you paid. Whether it is in a school, a company or corporation, go and find ways to get your own work going. And talk! Talk to other people in the same boat as you, so that you don’t feel like you are by yourself. Find the networks, find out what projects are going on which you could get involved with. If you have an idea, don’t wait for someone else to come along and do it for you. There is always a way if you want to put on your work: you don’t always need to have a huge venue and loads of people, get a small room and get the people you need. Knock on your local theatre’s door, and ask if they have space. If they haven’t, you might find space in the local churchyard. If you want it, you have to go and do it these days. If you want the work, go and create it.
“If you’re trying to make it in Theatre you’ve got to really believe it it. […] You need to believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. “
ET: Finally, what is next for the Theatre Royal Stratford East?
DR: Well, we are just coming towards the end of our season at the moment, but this summer we are running our Musical Theatre initiative, which has been going on since 1999. The initiative is to bring in new work in the form of contemporary musicals. It started off as trying to find music which felt a little more contemporary, more urban, so that people in our areas might be able to relate to it more. So we started these courses where we bring in rappers, producers, novelists, etc to come on board and work with tutors from the Tisch school of arts in New York. So that is something we are very excited about which is taking place this summer.