A Producer's Theatrical Thoughts

16 February 2008

Student shows at the Arts Theatre go back a long way, but they seem to be on the decline. The theatre’s recent decision to axe the traditional CUMTS musical from its programme is indicative of its growing wish to distance itself from student theatre in order to function properly as a business.

When students clash with professionals, two very different worlds meet, and it can be hard to reconcile them in a way that is both artistically and financially rewarding. For starters, there’s an unavoidable circular problem: shows need to have a serious appeal beyond the student sphere in order for the Arts to be able to subsidize student productions in the first place. The Arts is a 600-seater, and they can’t rely on a solely student audience in order to pack it out and make back their considerable investment.

This is a simple and inevitable fact, but it’s artistically undesirable: in an ideal world, the best of what students have to offer should be for students – because for anyone else, it’s just going to be the worst of what the Arts has to offer anyway. We’re only really doing it for ourselves, but we can’t afford to do it for ourselves without a (larger) alien audience, so we’re not doing it for ourselves (badly). So why exactly are we doing it?

Take, for example, this year’s G&S show, The Pirates of Penzance. Looking around the theatre, there was hardly a student in sight – it was packed to the brim with old biddies. Whilst I’m sure that Gilbert and Sullivan does have a small following in the student world, it’s pretty specialist interest. Even the hardcore groupies admit that it’s outdated stuff, their obsession being primarily nostalgic – so it’s no wonder that it doesn’t find a particularly thriving young audience.

Is there a point in a show that’s principally targeted at a non-student audience, but that has students in it? Is it artistically or financially viable to expect punters to pay a professional sum to see an amateur performance? Such is the confusing conflict of interests of Arts Theatre shows, and unfortunately it’s a conflict which invariably shows in the final product too, yielding patchy results.

The Arts provides invaluable opportunities for students to work in a professional environment, often with professional directors (whether that’s the Greek play or Trevor Nunn’s Cymbeline), and the benefit of that to those involved is inestimable. However, there are big pay-offs, both for us and for the Arts. We can’t really put on what we’d like to put on with our best talent and with such an extraordinary facility at our disposal (yet the productions aren’t really polished enough to properly please the broader public anyway). And for the Arts, the shows make little financial sense.

I hope for our sake as participants that the Arts will continue to have a relationship with us – but you can’t deny that it will always be an inherently flawed and challenging one.