Posted on:Tuesday 6th August, 2019
In the fourth of a series of blog posts, Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation Chief Executive Graham Henderson looks at the way in which original theatre commissions like Before The Wall can be used to both raise awareness of the stories behind a museum’s collection and attract new audiences to theatre and the arts.
The Railway Children, the spectacular theatrical adaption of Edith Nesbit’s classic children’s book from 1906 has been one of the great commercial successes of the last decade. During its run at the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station alone it attracted over 300,000 paying customers. Perhaps this was bound to be a popular adaption, with the fact that it involved a real steam train and disused railway station no doubt adding a great deal to its appeal. However, the statistic that interested me most was that as many as 75% of audience members did not usually go to the theatre. They were new audiences, attracted to a theatrical show delivered in a non-theatre space.
The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (R&V) is an arts organisation committed to both encouraging new artistic work and of reaching out to new audiences for the arts. So, when it came to the commissioning of new theatre shows my colleagues and I were keen to follow the logic of The Railway Children and other experiential shows like it, and to reach out to new audiences who rarely (or never) attend traditional theatre performances. In addition to which, the path for the successful development of original theatre shows for commercial presentation is so narrow as to practically not exist at all. Even shows which win awards and plaudits at the Edinburgh Fringe and other theatre festivals usually find it hard to leverage that success into an extended commercial run in a traditional theatre space. A few shows (such as Warhorse) have been developed on the basis of subsidy before becoming valuable commercial properties. But these are very much the exceptions. For the most part the commercial and the subsidised theatre sectors go their own separate ways.
Instead R&V has chosen a new way of developing original theatre in partnership with museums, organisations with their own interest in dramatising the stories that underpin their collections, and with an interest in finding new and different ways of telling these stories. Our current theatre show, Before the Wall, a play by Chris Ruffle about the Opium Wars, the inglorious story of predatory attacks by the West on China in the 1860s, is brilliantly suited to such a partnership. Featuring a cast of British East Asian and East Asian actors, the show provides a topical reminder of the way that the British Empire used force to impose trading arrangements which were highly disadvantageous to China, and how western soldiers burnt the Summer Palace outside Beijing carrying away precious pieces of art and heritage. Before the Wall opens for a 10-day run in the main auditorium at the National Museum of Scotland on 17 Aug 2019 in partnership with Gilded Balloon, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival. This story has a close connection with the Museum’s collection. Its new East Asia Gallery includes several important artefacts acquired from the Summer Palace, and those attending the play will also be offered a guided tour immediately afterwards to see the relevant exhibits. Original theatre is being used in an innovative way to tell the stories behind these artefacts, to address a controversial legacy, and to reflect on the background to Anglo-Chinese relations today. And, as a theatre show in a museum space, we anticipate that the show will attract audiences beyond the usual theatre crowd, including Chinese residents and visitors intrigued by the subject matter.
The Museum connection may provide a means of staging the show again on a more extended run too. After the initial run as part of the Edinburgh Fringe we hope to the present the show with another institutional partner in London for an extended run in the spring of 2020, another museum with an interest in the Opium Wars. After that the show may also be presented in partnership with a venue in Shanghai. Thanks to these connections we are greatly extending the impact of the show, reaching large audiences of non-regular theatre goers, and greatly enhancing its commercial prospects. A connection between the theatre show and existing museum collections is serving to provide a new and more sustainable basis for original theatre, and a means of presenting topical and ground-breaking work to new audiences in exciting non-theatre venues. At the same time, we are exploring other original theatre commissions with other museums and non-theatre partners with a view to generating similar opportunities to create new work, and new opportunities for writers, actors and other artistic professionals. At the end of the day theatre is much too important and topical to remain within the confines of traditional theatre spaces…