Metta Theatre, The Jungle Book - Photo: Richard Davenport ©RWD16
by Poppy Burton-Morgan, Artistic Director of Metta Theatre
When I started my own theatre company Metta Theatre over a decade ago my main driver was purely artistic - "what is the work I want to make? What are the stories I want to tell?" I made a lot of exquisitely beautiful work, but it was seen by only a few thousand people, sometimes only a few hundred! I have been lucky enough to make work within the subsidised sector. That gift of subsidy allows artists or venues to embrace risk - both economic, but also more crucially artistic risk - it allows artists space to make artist-led work, work that, often by virtue of scale, isn’t relying on ticket sales to financially sustain it. It has been a gift indeed to develop my craft over a decade, making artistically risky work exploring the fusion of circus and song, or hip hop and BSL signing. But that gift is abused when it becomes a bunch of artists making art for themselves and their fellow artists.
The UK has an artistically rich and thriving subsidised theatre ecology, one in which work increasingly proves itself a critical success and crosses over into the commercial sector. War Horse being the most well-known example of this, within a growing stable of National Theatre productions that start life on the subsidised side of the fence and make the leap across. On a smaller scale I have been making this leap with my own work and discovering a whole new theatrical language in the process.
Since 2016 my Jungle Book (which started as a subsidised mid-scale tour) has had two commercial transfers and been seen by over 35,000 people. It’s as complex, nuanced and politically provocative as our early work - it’s also a title that audiences want to see, and is marketed as a ‘mainstream’ show for everyone. It’s audience-led in a way my early work never was.
We no longer describe our projects as ‘the work’ or ‘the piece’ (except to the Arts Council and other funders!) now it’s ‘the show’, ‘the production’ or ‘the product’. When our shows play in commercial houses rather than subsidised ones the marketing teams choose different production imagery and reword the marketing copy very differently. Depending on the conversation it is both a ‘spectacular street dance and circus version of the Jungle Book, fun for all the family!’ Or a ‘provocative Hip-hop reimagining of Kipling exploring identity and belonging in multi-cultural Britain’. Of course it’s both of those things.
Commercial work by definition, in its lack of other financial support, relies on its audiences which changes the language used to sell it. You can afford the risk of making ‘the product’ sound challenging when you’re only selling a few thousand tickets and perhaps to a niche market for whom that ‘challenge’ is the appeal. When you’re selling 35,000 tickets you realise the extent of the selling. Theatre IS a product and like any other product you want one that is good quality and good value - the language/imagery that denotes that is not the language of artistic risk or innovation. Audiences love to be challenged - but only once they are in their seats - so while we continue to challenge them with the work, now we frame that as something more palatable - something spectacular that will make you laugh and cry.
It’s the same art as it always was - now we just disguise the art with sequins and feathers, and describe the work with the linguistic equivalent. The driver is now how do we frame the stories that we want to tell as stories that everyone wants to hear.