Every theatre history textbook I own, every class I’ve ever taken has always started with the theatre of the Ancient Greeks. They are hailed as the progenitors of theatre and the heroes that transformed Greece into the West End of the Mediterranean. During this period we redefined history as pre-Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic. From then on, the Greeks were no longer an ancient tribal people, but the paragons of culture and aesthetics.
There is one exception to starting with the Greeks when discussing theatre. A short prologue, sparsely worded, detailing ‘Ritual Theatre’ and/or ‘Tribal Theatre’. This is just a short 200,000 years of festival, epic poetry, storytelling, puppetry, masked performance, song and dance often condensed into 2000 words with a framed picture of a mask. Aside from the colonial implications of erasing so much cultural heritage, it’s hard to know what to say about this massive stretch of time.
Why does this matter?
Because by starting the history of culture with the Greeks we have condensed the rest of humanity’s rich cultural heritage, one that stretches back many thousands of years more, into a short prologue. We have forgotten that since the dawn of Homo Sapien we have been telling and singing stories for one another.
For most of human history, theatre has taken place out in the open, around fires and in fields, in homes, temples and places of gathering. In communities. In small spaces not specially designed theatre spaces.
Don’t get me wrong, theatres are great! But many audiences don’t feel welcome or can’t afford to access them.
Theatre should be a fire pit. A place of gathering and storysharing. I’m not the first to say this at all, I’m pretty sure I’ve stolen it from some other person with much more academic rigour but I think there’s something to be learned from our prehistoric ancestors.
We have written out of our theatre history books our localised, community rooted performance and have done ourselves a serious disservice.
I'm talking specifically to the independent theatre companies here. Very often we aspire to the mainstage (and trust me, I’d love to see our work there one day) but there are other equally important stages. Amazing, underused halls, libraries, museums and council run venues with a strong reach into the local community. These spaces root the work they host in community and by performing in them we connect with a deep heritage of localised storytelling. We also bring through audiences who may never attend a mainstage production, we can become the gateway drug for serious theatre users.
And as for young audiences, having access to professional, independent theatre in the local community is invaluable. It teaches young people to attend theatre as a part of everyday life and normalises live performance. By performing in local venues to local audiences we become a crucial part of building the audience of tomorrow by grafting live storytelling onto the bones of our young audiences.
So, my call out is to the small companies. Find your audience. Let’s go back to our roots and tap into a rich heritage of communal, live performance. Let’s get out and get local.