Across the Pond: What’s Happening Regionally?
When we talk about theatre in the UK, we can broadly split the action into two categories: that which is happening in London, and that which is happening regionally. Referring specifically to musical theatre, there are quite a few reasons (mainly money-related) as to why the capital produces the vast majority of the British contribution to the art form, in a similar way to how New York provides a hub to the US theatre industry.
I want to talk specifically about what’s happening regionally firstly out of principle, as I myself am currently working outside of London, but also because it is actually worth mentioning that there is some activity. It’s not a barren wasteland beyond the borders of the West End as some may believe.
York New Musical Festival is the only annual festival of new musical theatre in the UK, and I had the pleasure of spending last weekend there, mainly in discussion with a cross-section of the industry as well as seeing some brilliant work. It truly is a very valuable commodity to have regional festivals such as this, whilst the Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes precedence in the minds of most (and for good reason) it seems to me to be very refreshing to be able to look from another angle. York isn’t a city particularly known for its contributions to theatre, but it is culturally very rich and it does makes sense to host a series of events in a festival format there.
The auditorium was near-full and you can’t deny that there was a buzz in the foyer; it felt to me like shared anticipation for new work.
I was drawn into various conversations during my time at the festival, but the most interesting to me was about what we consider to be ‘musical theatre.’ British attitudes towards the genre is something I will be discussing in detail later in this series, but to briefly mention: it seems that audiences don’t necessarily realise that musicals aren’t universally jazz hands and high kicks. The diversity of styles and subject matter which were being presented in York was a genuine surprise to some, and I wonder why that is.
I’m not sure that a misrepresentation of new musical theatre is at play here, but perhaps just a lack of access to genre-pushing shows. Touring productions of new musicals are a rarity but, again at risk of treading territory which I’ll be discussing in detail in a few weeks, where new work is concerned there is a general understanding that there is a distinction between ‘theatre with music’ and ‘musical theatre.’ Now obviously this is a completely debatable area, but I wonder if audiences are seeing shows which could include standard traditional format musicals, but because they aren’t being marketed as ‘musical theatre’ then there is a presumption that we’re seeing something else; ‘theatre… with music.’
It’s very difficult to talk about regional work, especially if we add the issue of a blurred definition of ‘musical theatre,’ because it varies from city to city, producing venue to producing venue, touring company to touring company. Audiences and theatre makers are in isolation from the general machine of the genre, so to talk in a generalised fashion is almost to belittle the contribution.
The best way to get a grasp of the diversity which I’m referring to is perhaps to look at the Edinburgh Fringe, and see it as a reflection of the industry. There is a huge selection of work being presented throughout August, but even to spend a few days there would probably provide you with a better understanding of what the regions can provide than I or anyone could ever put into writing.
Over the next few posts I’ll be in conversation with various organisations at the forefront of new British musical theatre, including Perfect Pitch, Musical Theatre Network and the MTA (Musical Theatre Academy).