The seduction of theatre: what is it that makes the act of theatre-going so special?

Why do you drop your pistachio shells all over the theatre? The theatre is a temple of art”, says Fanny, played by Barbara Streisand, to Billy in the 1975 film Funny Lady. If Barbara Streisand believes it, then it has to be true. The act of theatre-going is a ritual: you dress up in your fanciest clothes; you enter the theatre through shiny brass emboldened doors; you are ushered to your seat by a satin waistcoat-clad employee; and then the power of the performance overcomes all your emotions and seduces you so your eyes are glued to the stage (or at least that is how it is for me every time…).

They are temples of entertainment. The most ornate theatres in the present day were generally built in the 18th and 19th centuries, housing the first performances of neoclassicism, melodrama and romanticism. It is the plush red carpets and the towering ceilings; the ornate balconies and the towering seats; the rush for a tiny tub of overpriced ice cream during the intermission and the slight rustles as the old lady next to you tries to eat her Werther’s Originals as quietly as possible mid-performance.

Theatrical forms of entertainment have been around for centuries – commandeered by the Greeks and Romans with their assortment of tragedies in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE – whilst today the arts and culture sector still adds £5.9 billion worth of gross value to the UK’s economy (accpording to Arts Council England, 2011.) It is a testament to the true joy and thrill of the theatre that it has stayed such a prominent leisure activity for so long.
Over the years, theatre has been enjoyed by everyone across the social spectrum too. In the late 16th century, the British monarch Queen Elizabeth I was a patron of the theatre and in particular, Shakespeare. Though she never visited public theatres herself, she greatly championed theatre visits and how they unified the social classes, as upper, middle, and lower class citizens flocked daily to see shows across London. Travelling theatre companies ensured more remote rural areas had access to shows, as well as being much more affordable for the poorest in society. There were elements of segregation –as we see today, with the levelled seating and the grand boxes encompassing each side of the stage. However, this makes theatre so much more accessible. Even if you have to watch from dizzying heights, the atmosphere is always the same.

The University’s Bedlam Theatre offers a diverse selection of highly entertaining performances without costing the earth, and with one of my flatmates being thoroughly involved, she has made sure I am in the know. With a range of shows coming up before Christmas – such as 4.48 Psychosis, the Freshers’ Slots and the weekly Improverts – she has said that she is unfailingly impressed by how professional the shows are each and every time. Most of the shows I have attempted to see so far have been sold out – either proof of my general ineptitude at ticket purchasing, or their theatre prowess and popularity… I would go with the latter.

Last month, Hamlet was screened live around the country and I was lucky enough to see it at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Not only did I get to marvel over the perfect degrees of Benedict Cumberbatch’s chiselled cheekbones, but I got to soak up the atmosphere of a true Shakespearian masterpiece. Theatre is a method of escape – a means to sit, forget your worries and immerse yourself in the drama. In the American economic depression of the 1930s, only the theatre and cinemas retained their audiences; it became a method of forgetting about financial worries for an hour or two and therefore maintained its popularity.

I think this is still the case today. One stage has the power to hold the attention of a whole auditorium of people and make them feel a whole myriad of emotions: theatre is definitely seductive.

Photo credit: Bahman Frazad @ Flickr

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