Happy 50th Birthday, National Theatre, and Many Happy Subsidies

I wish the National Theatre a very happy 50th birthday. To me, it is what subsidy is all about. It could have been a staid presenter of the classics of the English stage. Instead it has encouraged new writing and the discovery of non-English work. It has been challenging and experimental.

Given the opportunity not to play safe, the National Theatre has produced many incredible productions that have become huge hits. Who could have predicted the success of a play starring life size puppet horses?  Or the recent stunning production of Frankenstein? It’s hard to believe its director Danny Boyle would ever have learnt the skills to put on that unforgettable opening of the London Olympics without a grounding in subsidised theatre.

It is of course a worry when you rely on a subsidy. I’m about to attend my first Board meeting as a trustee of the Theatre Royal in Winchester and I am already concerned about what would happen if our city council were to follow some other local authorities and cut grants to the arts.

It was the opposite case when I worked at The Mayflower. There, the lack of subsidy meant that the programme was inevitably full of known quantities that could be relied on to fill seats – great shows of course (quite a few subsidised in their original productions) but no thrill of discovery or pushing the boundaries.

To those who object to paying to subsidise something that offends them or they would never go to see, I can only say that for every subsidised play I’ve disliked, there is something else that I’ve loved that might never have seen the lights of the stage but for a grant. Les Miserables is one of them. War Horse is another.

Small scale work is important too and more under threat than the large scale endeavours. I still remember the stunning impact of Peta Lily’s Beg! 20 years later- and I loved her latest show when she performed it for the Winchester Theatre Royal. Blue Apple Theatre’s Hamlet last year changed lives both of the participants and the audience. As a trustee of that company, I know just how much we rely on grants.

It is sometimes suggested that independent shops should be subsidised, perhaps with reduced rates or rents. The idea has merit. The big chains would object to this interference in a free market just as the commercial theatres objected to the creation of the National Theatre fifty years ago. Now they would see that the National has enriched the West End with productions, actors and directors.

Small independents fill gaps. Some become large chains. Others provide a testing ground for new products. Think of the Body Shop for example. They also make a city more attractive to visitors and residents. Winchester is enhanced both by its subsidised Theatre Royal and its large number of independent shops.

This blog was written by Paul Lewis, owner of the marketing consultancy The Lewis Experience and online retailer Your Life Your Style, and former Head of Marketing and Operations at The Mayflower Theatre. You can connect with him on Google+ and LinkedIn.

Theatre That Changes Lives

Blue Apple Theatre changes the lives of people with learning disabilities but also the audience that watches it

Tommy Jessop in Blue Apple Theatre's The Hotel
Tommy Jessop in Blue Apple Theatre’s The Hotel

There are two things I have always felt passionate about. I’ve always loved theatre. I’ve always hated discrimination. Therefore it was one of the proudest moments of my life last year to be invited to become a trustee of Blue Apple Theatre because it uses drama to help people with learning disabilities become more confident, skilled and respected.

One of the best theatrical experiences I have had was Blue Apple’s adapted version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which I saw last year at the Theatre Royal Winchester. The command and intensity with which Tommy Jessop played the Prince plus the consistently strong engagement of the rest of the actors in the momentous events both captured the audience and threw new light on the play, which is all I ask whenever I go to the theatre.

By literally putting people with a learning disability centre stage, Blue Apple encourages audiences to see beyond the disability and respect them as human beings. Blue Apple doesn’t patronise its participants, it challenges them to think about their performance and trains them to become effective actors. I’m expecting their latest production The Hotel, which is inspired by the classic French farces of Feydeau, to be as funny and moving as anything you could hope to see on stage.

Discrimination against people with a learning disability remains on the whole untackled and unremarked.  I think this is partly because it can be a hidden disability but also because someone with a learning disability is regarded as somehow mentally immature and therefore not due the rights of other adults.

It is expected- although still resented by some- that businesses will adjust their premises and working practices to accommodate someone with a physical disability, whether as an employee or customer. This happens far less commonly when someone needs extra time or attention because of a learning disability.

These days hate crime is something the police are trained to recognise when it involves a black or gay person. Blue Apple’s original theatre production Living With Fear describes a hate crime against someone with a learning disability. So successful has it been at educating police officers and others that the Home Office recently funded a film version, made with the help of Hampshire Police, called Paul’s Story.

Blue Apple make theatre that changes lives. Not only the lives of those taking part but those who see it.

The Hotel is performing at the Theatre Royal Winchester until Saturday 13 July.

The Power of Nostalgia

Memory Points
Memory Point(s)

‘New’ is a strong force in marketing but nostalgia is even more powerful. One of the most famous scenes in Mad Men was when Don Draper described the new Kodak wheel for projecting a series of photo slides as a ‘time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.’

I was reminded of this when I went to a performance at the Theatre Royal Winchester last night. Memory Point(s) by Platform 4 is a mystery tour of the theatre in which the audience encounter images and sounds that create and trigger memories. The work is inspired by work done with people with early onset dementia in Southampton and looks at how memories work, the importance of music to memory and what happens as we succumb to dementia.

A small group of us were taken on a disorientating journey through various public and backstage parts of the building. Not knowing exactly where you were made each encounter vivid. It might be opening a locker to reveal a tableau scene, a photo in a frame, a snatch of music on headphones, the glimpse from the lighting box of a musician in the auditorium. Seeing them again, perhaps in a more complete context, sometimes in a fragmentary way, recreated the way in which memory works, particularly when it starts to fade.

To ourselves, our lives are not simple chronological journeys from cradle to grave, a might appear in an obituary, but a jumble of sounds, images and feelings, often from occasions when we were especially happy like a holiday or a wedding, that have no relation to the distance of time involved. Just as Don Draper describes a Kodak slide show.

Like advertisers, our brains use nostalgia to make ourselves feel good. We rewrite our complicated lives as a construct of memories in which life was simpler and happier than it is now or ever really was.

There was one special moment in the show when we came across a doll’s house in which each room opened up and, like one’s brain, was filled randomly with the various old photos (always of people smiling) that we had seen.

If we are unfortunate enough to get Alzheimers, we lose our connection with the recent past and the strong memories from the distant past take over, then they too fade. The climax of Memory Point(s), when our party had arrived on the stage, was a dance that, for me, conjured up the desperation caused by the fragmentation of the memories by which our brain defines who we are.

The power of music to evoke nostalgia is something advertisers were aware of long before researchers discovered its importance to those suffering from dementia. The dancer eventually achieves calmness from the lasting memory of music.

The experience was, and I use the word advisedly, unforgettable.

Memory Point(s) is performing a number of times each day at the Theatre Royal Winchester until Saturday 6 July.