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Non traditional spaces for traditional audiences

October 21, 2015

Last week, I saw my first “5 Star” musical of the year – the joyous “In The Heights.” It played a large venue – the King’s Cross Theatre holds over 500 people, yet an unconventional one. For those who have not been there, it is a tent over railway lines (used for “The Railway Children,” which shares the venue) behind King’s Cross station, in what is, or was, a sidings.

That brought back memories of last year, when I had the pleasure of introducing my theatregoing group to the joy of “fringe” venues for the first time. Far smaller than the King’s Cross Theatre, and less luxuriously appointed, but still not the gilded West End they were used to.

I eased them in gently, by “block booking” the entire venue so that they were spared the “arriving early and lengthy wait in line to rush in and nab the best seat first” bit, but it was still unreserved seating, a concrete space under a railway arch, no amplification, and a cast so close you could see every emotion as they worked their socks off to entertain us.

Truthfully, I found out later that they were as amused by us as we were by them. It was the first time the theatre had played host to an entire coachload, and there was much speculation as to the type of folk who would participate in that kind of event. Still, it all worked out in the end, and everybody (venue and cast included) declared the evening a raging success.

OK, so the theatre I chose that time was at the top end of the scale – The Union Theatre has a strong reputation for great musicals, and I knew that the seats were “proper” theatre ones and the sightlines were always excellent. Still, the lack of gilt trimmings, proper paper tickets, luxurious loos and, most important, huge sets, large band, orchestra pit and microphones surprised everybody in the party…

… and delighted them. For the first time, they realised what acting and theatre are really about. It’s about an actor engaging closely with a member of an audience, using their skills to become somebody else and tell that person’s story as clearly and convincingly as they can.

Without yards of seats, an orchestra pit and high platform between “us” and “them,” requiring amplification to be heard, my group suddenly realised how much easier that task becomes for both actor and audience member alike. Scarier for both, as every slip is more visible, every bored face harder to overcome as it’s close; but when it works, it’s pure magic. A proud father singing a solo about his daughter as 50 people hang on his every word generated spontaneous applause from some – the rest were too enchanted to even think of moving a hand muscle.

There’s hundreds of fringe theatres all crying out for audiences, and hundreds of coach parties looking to see shows in a way that won’t break the bank. To group organisers out there, I’d urge them to do what I did. Contact your local fringe venue, see what they can do, and give your group the gift of the unconventional. They’ll be glad that you did.

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