Cambridge theatre: Is there just too much?

Joe Richards 11 March 2017

Open up Camdram and the front page of the site will proudly boast of the scale of the vast Cambridge theatre scene. This week alone, it tells me, there are 46 performances of 16 shows across 9 venues, involving 279 people. From show choir, to Renaissance verse dramas to sketch shows, in one week alone, Cambridge theatre is covering a vast array of genres and styles, providing, hopefully, something for everyone.

But with all this going on at once, you could be forgiven for wondering: is there ever such a thing as too much theatre? From the perspective of a theatre editor, trying to get reviewers to 16 different shows, and then chase up copy from reviewers and rehearsal photos from producers, there certainly is. But from a wider perspective as well, the huge amount of theatre in Cambridge doesn’t necessarily always seem to be a good thing.

Cambridge is extremely lucky to have a huge number of different venues, all of which have a slightly different atmosphere and lend themselves to different pieces of theatre. It’s also lucky to have a huge number of people who want to be involved in theatre and whose talents cover a number of different from skills, from directing and acting, to stage management and publicity design. It is of course right that we take advantage of all these opportunities and all of this talent.

Indeed, some would argue that it’s only because we have this huge quantity of opportunities that all those who wish to be involved can be. Yet, looking at the entries on Camdram, you start to notice a familiar pattern. Ultimately, it’s the same names cropping up again and again. Largely speaking, it’s the same few people producing shows, just as it’s the same few people directing them, the same few people in the lead roles, and the same few people designing and teching them.

The results of this narrowness are problematic in two ways. The first is the much remarked upon theatre ‘clique’, which excludes many enthusiastic and talented people who would like to be involved, in particular creatives who are BME, transgender, non-binary or who fall into another marginalised group which is denied a space on or behind Cambridge stages. This is a significant issue, but it’s one that as a white, cisgender theatre enthusiast, I am not qualified to write on.

But what I do feel able to critique is the sense that this narrowness creates of Cambridge theatre being some kind of machine, which churns out show after show after show. The ‘biggest’ actors appear in several shows a term, moving in the space of a week from one intense role to the next; designers will have built several sets in the space of eight weeks. The show selection processes tend to limit the amount of theatre one person can direct in a term, but those ‘big-name’ directors will often be directing one or two shows, as well as perhaps assisting on another, maybe acting in another and even designing some costumes for another- because why not?

It surely comes down in part to the relentless pursuit of ‘Camdram credits’, which leads Cambridge creatives to hunt frantically for as many opportunities as they can. One can’t help but feel that the sheer volume of theatre does not exist because there are genuinely hundreds of people who have a burning passion for a concept that they want to see realised on stage, but because this volume creates more opportunities to gather those Camdram credits and get your name out there. After all, how much can a person really commit to a piece when you’re simultaneously preparing for five different roles?

Of course, this isn’t to say we should reduce the variety of productions or spaces on offer. It’s important that we keep up the verse dramas, the sketch shows, the modern classics, the new writing and the stand up, as well as continuing to stage productions in a variety of spaces, including in colleges, so that no one feels intimidated by the prospect of going on stage. It’s also important that we continue to have those opportunities for radical theatre which exist now. But at the same time, is it necessary to have four sketch shows in a week, three Renaissance dramas in a term? Perhaps not.

Cut down the amount of theatre and perhaps we’d have a theatre scene where people really committed to one piece at a time, instead of attempting to churn out as many productions as they can. Who knows, maybe those brilliant pieces of theatre that we’re privileged to enjoy would be even better?