Tag Archives: theatre

A Passport for the Pub?

Discussion of “domestic vaccination passports” (some form of portable proof of vaccination against Covid-19 to enable the bearer to access venues or services) seems to throw up two counter-arguments. For some, there is a libertarian argument that there should be no restriction on access to anything.  For others, a civil liberties argument that a vaccination passport will exclude marginalised groups in society who do not have access to vaccination.  There is something to be said for both of those positions, but to assess them, we need to think about the uses (and limitations) of a vaccination passport.

At the time of writing, there is still a lockdown in the UK.  I can do essential shopping, I can do limited outdoor exercise, but otherwise my liberties are curtailed.  I cannot go to a pub, a restaurant or a theatre.  As my flowing mane will testify, I cannot get a (professional) haircut.  If I need to access medical services, I am first quizzed about Covid symptoms.  Since an unvaccinated person can still access essential services, my assumption is that the purpose of a passport is to allow a vaccinated person to access non-essential services.

This is about risk management.  I see it as being particularly important for large gatherings (theatres, for example) and personal services (hairdressers).  The libertarian argument is that anyone should be free to choose where they go.  The passport does not stop you exercising that choice (unless you have chosen to remain unvaccinated); what it does is to give you more information about the choice you are making.  Without a vaccination passport system, you have no information about the Covid risk posed by visiting a venue with strangers.  With the passport, you have more information, you can make a more informed choice.  Choice is a good thing (libertarians argue); surely informed choice is even better.

Thinking of it from the point of view of a venue or organisation providing entertainment, theatres want to maximise their audiences.  A policy requiring vaccination would offer a level of reassurance to potential audience members that a visit to the theatre represents a minimal level of risk, since everyone else there will have the same level of Covid immunity; it would therefore tend to encourage larger audiences.  But how does the theatre know someone has been vaccinated?  That’s the passport.

I imagine that the entertainment sector would make greatest use of vaccination passports: I don’t want to catch Covid but I desperately want to go to the theatre (and I want shows to be sustainable, and that means big audiences).  With large-scale entertainment, the choice is limited: a theatre is putting on a show; you see a show or you don’t.  At the other end of the scale we have small venues, with more consumer choice: pubs.  Here the libertarian argument might be applicable.  A pub can choose to operate a vaccination policy or not.  If it operates the rule, you only get in with a passport.  The next pub down the street chooses not to operate the policy, and anyone can go.  If you have a passport, you have a choice of pubs; if you don’t, then the choice is likely to be smaller.

The civil liberties argument is more wide-ranging, expressing the desire to avoid excluding groups who are already marginalised.  So who would a vaccine passport system exclude?  At the moment, the biggest category would be people who intend to be vaccinated, but have not been vaccinated yet.  I’m in that category, and I accept that I will (and should) be excluded from some activities until I have had the jab.  (But when I’ve had it, I want to access society as fast as possible.)  Secondly, we have people at the margins of society – particularly the homeless.  As long as the passport is not used to exclude people from essential services, I would suggest that this not an argument for not implementing passports, instead it is an argument to making sure we deploy vaccination to marginalised people.  (The blunt economic argument here is that the passport is only of benefit to people who can afford to access public entertainment, but it is not itself an impediment to people who cannot afford to do so.)  I would make the same argument in the third category, which is groups (particularly ethnic minorities) amongst whom vaccine take-up is slow.  We need to vaccinate those people (and encourage them to go to the theatre).  The fourth category is people who oppose vaccination.  That’s fine.  They can make a rational choice to accept a level of risk.  What they cannot do is to impose that risk on me.  A vaccine passport would exclude them from some venues and activities, but that is a consequence of their own choice.

All this isn’t perfect.  The most likely implementation is likely to be a smartphone app.  I occasionally take a pair of elderly relatives to concerts.  Neither has a smartphone.  Some provision has to be made for such people.  There is, as yet, no firm plan to vaccinate children (at the time of writing, early trials are happening).  The passport system needs to find a way through that issue.  Nevertheless, I see domestic vaccination passports as part of the fast track back to normality.

Get With The Programme

Show pogrammes selectionI always get a programme when I go to a show.  Out of general interest, I would get a programme anyway, but I admit that in part this is a defence mechanism; I’m frequently there to review the show, so I need to know who played whom.

So what should go into a programme?  Well, as I say, I need to know who did what.  I’m quite partial to actors’ biographies because it reminds me where I’ve seen them before.  (Oh yes, when I last saw Julie she was being rogered over a table in Kiss Me Kate.  That’s Lucy?  She looks completely different.  She put in a great performance as Andy.  I remember Brian from Titanic; went down really well…)  A list of scenes and songs may be welcome.  Something about the writer?  Something about the history of the show?  Something about the company in general?

What I don’t want to read in a programme is the plot.  There may be a place for that in a programme for an opera sung in a foreign language, but otherwise, giving me the plot is the job of the show, not the programme.  After all, not everyone has a programme, and not everyone who has one has time to read it beforehand.  But what happens when the vocal lines are so complex that the audience can’t hear individual words to a song?  In that case the production has to find another way to convey the plot; from the stage, that is, not from the written word.  Usually this is called acting.

This is, of course, an opinion.  Some people want the comfort of knowing what they’re going to see before they see it.  I’m happier with theatre as a voyage of discovery, so when I got to my seat last night, I deliberately avoided the plot page of the programme, and I didn’t know about the Get Out Of Jail Free card that allowed a neat resolution to the dilemmas of the characters.  Thus I owe a debt of gratitude to the lady in the row behind me who, before curtain up, for the benefit of those around her, read the whole thing aloud.

The Downside of Directions

Rehearsal of Miss Glossop's Weekend Break. Photo by Sue ArdernThe role of director as we know it today is a relatively recent invention in the theatre.  Nevertheless it’s an important job, and a different job from that of the author.  The director helps the actors to develop a coherent interpretation of the author’s work.   If you are writing, you don’t need to do the director’s job (or the actor’s).  You don’t need to tell the actor how to say the lines.  You don’t need to direct every move.

Nevertheless, where you are giving stage directions, you do need to be clear.  To that end, I try to discourage abbreviation in directions.  If something happens Down-stage Left, then it’s better to say it that way than to abbreviate it to DSL (just because some companies include novices who won’t know how to interpret the abbreviations – and may even struggle with upstage and down).  You’re not going to save very much of your typing time or the printer’s ink by abbreviating Upstage to US – and if you find you are typing it so much that the time saving becomes significant, then you are probably doing the director’s job and blocking all the moves in the show.

Whilst arguing against the writer doing the director’s job, Peter Ayre told me a tale told to him by a festival adjudicator about a company who had been using a script from “French’s Acting Editions”.
A digression here: based on their long history, Samuel French have taken a different approach to stage directions.  Peter John Cooper tells me that their Acting Editions used to be based on the “Prompt’s Copy” for the original production.  This included any changes made to the author’s text by the director, plus the blocking of every move.  For a long-running production, the Prompt’s Copy was the definitive text, used to resolve any disputes and used by the Deputy Stage Manager to rehearse any actor joining the cast to take over a role.  Turning this into a published text assumes that the original production was definitive, that any new production will have the same set design and that there is no role for interpretation by the new director.  In my view, this is a dangerous set of assumptions.  At worst it leads to the sort of ossification for which (before the copyright ran out) Gilbert and Sullivan productions used to be famous.  There’s a 1948 Flanders and Swan parody “In the D’Oyly Carte” where Donald Swan’s lyric suggests that every move was the same as it had been for the last fifty years:-

One that with tender passion fired
(Turn, pace, hand over heart),
Woe to the day that we were hired
By D’Oyly Carte!

(A brief exchange with my contact, Steve, suggests that these days Samuel French rely on the author’s directions rather than the prompt copy in their Acting Editions.)

Anyway, back to Peter Ayre’s story: the adjudicator was puzzled as to why the production opened with an actress crouched beneath a table.  Upon querying this he was told that “the book says mother is sitting below the table”.

How Badgers Move Goalposts

I told my aunt that she was indulging in post hoc rationalisation.  She demanded an apology (and a dictionary.)  But I do it too.  We all do it; it’s a natural function of the human brain.  We make up stories to fill in the gaps in a known set of facts.  Don’t believe me?  Look up from wherever you are reading this and take a very quick sweeping look at your surroundings, then come back to this.  Now recall everything that you saw.  Your visual cortex cannot take in every detail of every single thing caught be that sweeping glance.  That’s too much information for your brain to process in a short time.  Instead, it picks up salient features – shapes, colours, movements or things you expect to be there.  Then, when you try to recall it, your brain fills in all the gaps, not by recalling the exact information, but by making up and interpolating.  That’s how many optical illusions function: your visual cortex takes in major features then interpolates assuming continuity.

Optical Illusion
What do you see at the junctions?

We don’t know everything – we can’t know everything, there’s too much of it – but we are very bad at admitting it.  So we make things up.  We fill in the gaps.  This is not always helpful.  Scientists have to train themselves to look for evidence, rather than making things up.  On the other hand, we don’t allow politicians not to know everything, so they make things up all the time.  In September 2013 there was a trial of culling badgers in a couple of English counties to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis.  The trial wasn’t to measure the spread of bovine TB, the trial was to see whether a number of badgers could be shot consummate with reducing the spread of bovine TB.  According to the objectives of the trial, not enough badgers were shot in the trial period.  When he was asked about this, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, responsible for the cull, indulged in post hoc rationalisation.  He didn’t know why too few badgers had been shot, and his response was to make something up.  What he said was “The badgers moved the goalposts.”
Now I don’t think that we are right to expect politicians to know everything.  We don’t, so why should they?  However, justifying policy by made-up explanations is dangerous.  In that situation, the brain’s facility for filling the gaps is not useful.

Where this function of the human brain is incredibly useful is in the theatre.  It lies behind the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  Give the audience a hint of a location, and they will imagine the rest.  Many years ago, my local community theatre group put on a production of Willie Russell’s Our Day Out.  In the play, a stern, dislikeable teacher talks an errant schoolgirl down from a cliff.  After the show, an audience member buttonholed the director to say how realistic the cliff had been.  The cliff had actually been a small table with a piece of cardboard stuck on the front of it, plus a sound effect of seagulls.  The two actors played the scene beautifully – there was real tension – and the rest was created in the audience’s imagination.

In theatre, we rely on the brain to fill in the details that the production can’t deliver.  In theatre it’s art; in politics it’s courting disaster.