Pubs and Plays
M. Scott Tatum
What happens when Theatre, Music, and other performing arts (re)claim the informal spaces of pubs as venues for their productions?
A growing Middle Space is happening in theaters across the country as companies big and small decide to place large resources into creating, recreating, cooping, and generally embracing the use of pubs, bars and restaurants as entrance points in their organizations. Now, I write of this in a seemingly set of generic words not because I dont know what I’m talking about, but rather because the trend hasn’t codified into a easily recognized pattern. Yes, of course, there is the well-known by the music industry aspect of boozing up audiences to have them better enjoy a show (and, reversely, complain less about premium pricing of beverages at said show since it is seen to be a special occasion). But there is something else happening in many of the pub and restaurant installations happening at theaters around the country.
Let’s jump to the logical extreme for a second…
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (Daily Mail article on click through) takes the interesting position of not only embracing pub life as a part of the theatre world, but forgetting to bring the physical theater space along with them. In this production that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they use the Pub as the performance space. It is the venue and the setting, the inspiration and the execution of the piece. The troupe ends up exploring the space through use of Karaoke, bar napkins, tables and chairs, other patrons of the bar (who doesn’t remember getting involved in some drama when out for a drink one night?), and, most importantly, drinking pints of beer.
This removal of barriers seems fancy and new aged, novel in fact, to most theatre goers whose experiences with formal theatre performance is almost always a rather stiff affair of sitting on one side of the stage while the actors or dancers or musicians sit on the other side of the venue. However, it recalls the courtyard and inn stages of Elizabethan theatre, the travelling players of the Medieval times, and even the storytellers who would recall their days around the cooking fires in prehistoric eras. While at once new and exciting compared to our overly sanitized performance experiences in the world-class theatre venues, the work that Prudencia Hart is creating taps into our natural desire to connect with a story as it happens. Just as we rubberneck on the highway to see what the fuss is about in a car accident, turn on the news to learn of the good and bad of the day, and ask our children to recount the activities du jour, we find ourselves looking for more immediate connections to those around us. Prudencia Hart takes this idea to its logical extreme and makes play out of a space that we usually only reserve for impromptu/natural drama (WHO SPILLED THAT DRINK ON ME?!). Born out of a need to find additional performance spaces, as Edinburgh Fringe has pretty much filled in any and all available rooms in that city, this company took a chance of mixing the modern storytelling of today (theatre) and mixing it with the comforts of social interaction and nostalgia (the pub), creating a piece that has been met with great response. (As a note, Prudencia Hart will be at Texas Performing Arts at an as yet undisclosed pub location this January).
Chicken or the Egg?
But let’s get back to the other side for a second. While Prudencia Hart, and others, throw off the shackles of the formal theatre space altogether, many dance, theatre, visual arts, music venues are taking baby steps into the world of pubs by simply adding one to their campuses.
As this New York Times Article lays out, the Public Theatre is wrapping up the work on a $40+ million renovation of their downtown space. But very little work was done on the theatre venues themselves. Instead, they added a restaurant, a bar open until 2am, and a large lobby level outdoor veranda space. Why all the public space focus? They are taking the fairly well endorsed position that if you can create an image of your space as a 24/7 public venue for food, drink, and socializing, people will also stick around for a show. By making the venue one that doesn’t operate only for the hour before and after the performance, the Public is betting they can become the central destination of a neighborhood and a self-contained evening on the town.
Austin’s own ZACH Theatre (and their new Topfer Theatre) joins Texas Performing Arts, the currently under construction Austin Playhouse, the Butterfly Bar at the Vortex, etc., as venues in our town that feature opportunities to drink, eat, and mingle extensively before and after the shows and, in some cases, throughout the weekdays as well. ZACH goes a step further, at least in their publicity materials, to suggest that hanging out at the bar after the show is a surefire way to meet the performers as that will be where they hang out after shows as well. (I wonder what their contracts look like!) Likewise, they created public spaces that will be used as social and performance throughout their campus.
What does this all mean for the way we conceive of performance? Or of even just having a drink at the pub? For me, it represents a moment where performing arts organizations begin to diversify the stuffy brand in a way that allows for more entrance points, a new wave of creativity in the use of space and storytelling, and an expansion (hopefully) of the marketplace for works.