The Theatre Charter: an arts centre perspective

Last week, a new Theatre Charter was published ( “to instruct casual and future audience members as to what is acceptable behaviour”.

The Theatre Charter suggests that ‘bad behaviour’ is putting off regular customers (although fails to cite any evidence of this), describes mobile phone usage as an ‘offence’ (with all the criminal overtones that go with that word) and urges people to follow ‘UK etiquette in UK theatres’, which sounds like a line from the UKIP manifesto.

I thought it was a joke. Apparently it isn’t.

I am sure there are times when we have all been irritated by the behaviour of others whilst watching a performance – I certainly have, and I’ve probably complained about it afterwards. However, watching theatre is a live experience and a shared one, a communal activity – that’s the point – so the presence of others is a critical element of that. For the most part, people will have a heightened awareness of being in a shared space and behave in ways that takes account of their proximity to others, but sometimes they won’t.

Being forced to sever all connection to the outside world, sit in the dark for the duration of the event, not be allowed to leave, go to the toilet, eat, drink, take anything in or out of my bag and be expected to sit still sounds like some kind of mild torture to me. If that’s how I am expected to behave, I think I’ll give up going to the theatre.

This weekend I have been out and about on the streets of Stockton on Tees, watching local residents from some of the most deprived wards in the country enjoy some of the best outdoor arts experiences in the world as part of the Stockton International Riverside Festival. What strikes me every year is their attentiveness to the performances, their willingness to stand – often in the rain – for extended periods of time both waiting and watching performances that range from Punch and Judy to exquisite contemporary dance and everything inbetween; not just watching, but photographing, filming, sharing and critiquing what they see.

Although like many arts centres, ARC in Stockton attracts a broad range of audiences, I am aware that many of those people I see at SIRF are unlikely to ever set foot in our building.

I believe the reason for this is not just because SIRF events are free (we offer free stuff too), but because when people are watching art on the streets, there are no expectations of how to behave, no restrictions on when they have to arrive and leave, no-one telling them they can’t check their email or text a friend to let them know where they are, no concerns about going to the wrong place, wearing the wrong clothes or whether they can take their drink in or not. You can even go to the toilet whenever you want.

To me, this sounds like a much nicer way to enjoy theatre and performance, and every year I make a silent pledge to myself that I want to make coming to ARC more like watching work on the streets.

If we really are committed to enabling more people to enjoy the arts, then we have to look at the experience we are offering, and ensure it is appropriate for the way people live their lives today. We have to be more understanding of the needs and demands on people’s time and attention, and enjoy, rather than resist, the communal nature of theatre-going.

My experience of arts centres is that they are leading this way of thinking, developing a new and more permissive environment, with much greater equality between artists and audiences. It is therefore no coincidence that arts centres are attracting an increasingly diverse range of audiences, who are free to enjoy themselves.

I won’t be signing up to the Theatre Charter. Will you?

Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive, ARC Stockton