We’ve just come to the end of the first phase of making a show for a blindfolded audience; the story develops through sound, touch and smell. In our first mini try-outs, we learnt that lots of people equate darkness with scary stuff of the horror variety; a number of people came in with this expectation. That wasn’t the show we were interested in making. We realised that very early in the piece we would need to do something which would say clearly to the audience, ‘we are here to care for you, not to freak you out.’ The shorthand we used for this was ‘the hospitality moment’.
The piece currently opens with Shireen (the other ‘performer’) and myself leading blindfolded audience members, one by one, into the space, and showing them to a chair, while they listen to a piece of music. When I’m doing this, I feel a huge sense of responsibility. When I take each person’s hands I feel like the 10 metres we walk together gives me a sense of how that person is feeling; this may sound weird but it’s more than an act of touch. Someone fed back that it felt like partner dancing, a kind of wordless conversation.
Some audio stuff happens when everyone is seated, and the next physical interaction that Shireen and I have is to give each person a cup of tea. There’s a story function to this but it’s also our hospitality moment. I saw people visibly relax when they received the tea and realised that they were allowed to drink it. We tried other variants of hospitality moment but we kept on coming back to this – offering someone a drink. It’s what you do when someone comes to your house, or to a meeting. There’s something very basic about it, it says, hello, you are welcome.
I kind of wish it was possible in every theatre experience to lead each audience member to their seat, have some kind of wordless check-in with them, and offer them a drink. It isn’t, but the experience of making this show has got me thinking about hospitality in theatre and whether there are things we can perhaps do better. And I’m talking about the artists, not the poor front of house staff who are handed down some kind of cursory briefing sheet.
When I’m making other experiences for people, I think a lot about how I can best create the conditions in which they’ll relax and get the most out of what we’re doing. If I’m facilitating a workshop I’ll outline the plan at the beginning and tell people when there’ll be breaks. In 2015, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, Sofia Stephanou and I planned a conference at our then place of work. We spent as much time thinking about the structure of the day and refreshments as we did about who would speak. We allowed a 90 minute lunchbreak so that people could relax *and* chat *and* enjoy the awesome food that Mazi Mas provided; we didn’t feel that people wolfing down dry sandwiches would create the vibe we wanted. Sofia negotiated an incredible deal on cakes for mid-afternoon refreshment. And, against my rather more puritanical initial judgement, Becs and Sofia convinced me that we should offer our guests wine at lunch. The conference went well, for a number of reasons, but I really feel that a big part of it was the clear offer of hospitality and concern for experience in the widest sense. (I think this was also true of Maddy Costa and Jake Orr’s Talking, Making, Taking Part in 2015). And yes, for me –and for Becs and Sofia- sharing food was –and always will be- a big part of that. Even if every theatre experience can’t include some moment of sharing food (and I’m beginning to wonder why it can’t), there’s an attention to detail around hospitality in my workshop and conference planning that isn’t there when I think about theatre audience experience.
I recently read that the word hospitality is related to the word hostility. The root hospes is allied to the root hostis, which means both ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’. So hospitality, as in hostilis (stranger/ enemy) + potes (having power), originally meant the power that the host has over the stranger/ enemy. Which is pretty pertinent to theatre, when you think about it, especially if you’re thinking about audience members who might not have come before.
A friend, Liz Johnson, told me about an experience that Stan’s Café created for some midlands Arts Council people as part of a training day; an element of it was that they had to go into a bookie’s and place a bet. My friend told me that she’d read and even written about the invisible codes of behaviour that cultural venues run on, but that this experience in the bookie’s, of just feeling utterly clueless and like a fish out of water, made her fully realize how it must feel to rock up to a theatre if that’s not something you’ve done before. We, as the theatre-dwellers, have enormous power over the strangers – and if we’re not careful, this power can be unwittingly used to make them feel uncomfortable, or unwelcome, or even stupid. We need to take hospitality seriously.
It’s hard to talk about hospitality without making it sound like everything should be ‘nice’ and cute and all just drinking tea together. That’s not what I’m advocating for. I’m constantly frustrated by the narrow ambition of most UK theatre to merely ‘entertain’ its audience; I think people deserve better than the cultural equivalent of a stick of Juicy Fruit (smells good, initial taste pleasurable, that was nice, no nutritional value, doesn’t even freshen your breath, now it goes in the bin and why would you ever think of it again). In a recent conversation with an Austrian dramaturg, she lamented the way that the Kool Kids of UK theatre aspire to making German/ Austrian theatre but have really only taken on the visual aesthetic; they are, she said, still terrified of offending, disconcerting or confusing audiences.
So (how) is it possible to create work which challenges audiences while also showing hospitality? In research for a current project, I had a number of conversations about online dating. People said they were bolder, revealed more and took more risks while chatting online than they would have done face-to-face; research around computer-mediated communication would confirm this, and that it has to do with not getting verbal or visual feedback from the person you’re talking to (so you’re less likely to feel disapproved of). But one person also said someone very interesting: that we tend, in general, to conflate emotional and physical safety when actually they’re very different. When messaging from her house, where she was surrounded by all her stuff, warm, in comfy clothes etc, she felt physically safe – and this allowed her to take more emotional risks and reveal more. In a bar conversely, she would have felt less physically safe – perhaps on the other side of the city, in shoes that look great but hurt to walk in, in an environment that is too hot/ cold and where loud music means premature physical proximity to hear what the other person is saying. Less physical comfort = less emotional bravery.
This got me thinking about what we’re asking of our audiences. Are we ensuring their physical comfort (by which I don’t just mean how squishy the seat is, I mean a wider thing about how they relate to their environment) to ensure that they can be emotionally available for the journey we take them on? Or, conversely, if the piece requires them to take physical ‘risks’ (i.e. do something that is not just sitting there), are we looking after them emotionally – do they know we won’t ridicule them? Or if we will, is there a moment when they know why we have done this, that contributes to an enriched wider experience? For us, the idea of in what category we’re asking people to risk in, and to ensure they feel safe in the others is a useful way of thinking about what we’re asking of the people experiencing our work.
There’s been a spate of articles in recent weeks about theatre ‘etiquette’ (which always sounds to me like watching a play with a book balanced on your head silently intoning ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plains’) and the like. I kind of think this is the wrong way around to think about things. (I really liked Annabel Turpin’s comment, relayed from Manchester Royal Exchange’s You, the audience event, that we go on about the liveness of theatre but expect our audiences to act like they are dead).
If you invite someone to your house, you don’t ask them to turn off their phone for the duration of their visit, or sit very still for hours. I mean, you kind of hope that they will be having an engaging enough time to not spend the whole time on Facebook or swinging from your new curtains. But you –as the host- are thinking about their experience throughout. Do they need a drink? Are you serving dinner so late they will miss the last metro/ tube home? If the conversation turns to something thorny, are they ok with that/ not being put on the spot or shouted at by a more belligerent guest?
I don’t think tea and food are always the answer but I am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t have some way of always thinking about hospitality, our power over strangers and whether we are exercising that power with responsibility. I’m really interested in hearing about work that does this well…