David Graham: Edinburgh Festival Fringe could help change the world

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Plays that raise important issues – like many at Edinburgh Festival Fringe – should also help audiences to do something about them, writes David Graham.

In addition to its entertainment value, theatre has always been a way of communicating – spreading understanding and empathy through vicarious experience. From its earliest forms of storytelling around the camp fire, theatre has sought to reach people, to teach people, to communicate ideas – and to promote change. Until recently that effect could go no further but now, through social media and related technologies, its call to action can transcend the earshot of the campfire and the walls of the Greek amphitheatre. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with ‘just putting on a good play’ – but why not use the tools to hand to drive wider action if we can?

Last year, the play Adam at the Traverse Theatre moved and inspired me to launch the SIT-UP Awards to help theatre companies do just that. Our initial study of shows at the Fringe indicated that many venues and production

companies were failing to engage their audiences beyond the closing lines of the play, leaving them feeling let down or ill-equipped to take action.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe provides artists with an arena to shine a light on difficult, relevant issues affecting our society. With shorter than traditional running times, makeshift venues and the necessity for a simple set and props, audiences are often confronted in a more open, expressive and raw way than in mainstream theatre. Combine this with artists driven by passion or personal experience of the very issues they raise, and you have a powerful sparks on stage. I believe we should seek to carry on this energy way beyond the closing lines.

Out of nearly a thousand plays, over a quarter at the Fringe deal with serious social issues. SIT-UP surveyed and interviewed a 190 audience members at eight plays across a range of issues including race, mental health and drug addiction and discovered that: 79 per cent said the play changed the way they think; 79 per cent said they felt more informed; and 52 per cent said the play changed the way they will behave.

One audience member said, “It seems to me that audiences are often those who deliberately seek out hard-hitting drama because they want to be stimulated, challenged and confronted, and these are the very people who would welcome a deeper engagement with the play.”

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So if theatre truly is a call to action, what can be done to sound the bugle call outside the confines of the auditorium? The answer is relatively simple – and doesn’t take a huge amount of money or resources. The first step would be to provide information about any themes brought up by the play; that way if people want to find out more about the issues, they would easily know where to go. The second step might be to present opportunities to meet the company at a post-show discussion, providing the audience with the chance to ask them, and fellow audience members, questions and further debate the issues while the play and the emotions it evoked were still fresh in their minds.

Furthermore, there could be explicit calls to action, including the possibility of fundraising for an appropriate charity.

These are just some ideas but, of course, who better than creatives armed with a host of new technologies to come up with more solutions? Venues could also help. Understandably, there is the problem of the fast change-overs between shows, but surely the opportunity for the audience to meet the company members could be offered elsewhere at their venue. It might even help increase their bar takings. The creative team of Daughter at Canada Hub hold a very effective post-show discussion for an hour in the cafe at their venue, which was attended by 30 people on the day I was there. I discussed the idea of providing a dedicated area for post-show discussions with Robert McDowell of Summerhall and he’s considering this for next year. Hopefully others will follow.

Finally, charities themselves – particularly the larger ones – often fail to embrace theatre beyond providing buckets for monetary collections. There are ways they could engage with the captive audience of potential long-term supporters.

On a positive note, there are some wonderful examples of companies trying to do more than just put on a play. Surprisingly, many of the companies from abroad seem to be doing better than those from the UK. As Mehr Mansuri, of Henry Box Brown, said: “Social action engagement with our audiences is not a thing apart or after-thought, but at the very centre of our artistic and programmatic vision.”

Interestingly, the most obvious candidates from the best-funded productions often appear to do the least. This year a comedy show about the NHS which screams for change provided the audience with no suggestions about what they might actually do to effect it. And another show offers the description: “So you want to change the world? ... But you can’t do anything about it. Can you? This show says yes, yes you can” – then goes on to offer nothing beyond the performance when to do more would be so obvious.

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In London, the Old Vic is currently showing A Monster Calls based on the novel by Patrick Ness. The play addresses several issues including child carers, cancer and bereavement, but nowhere at the theatre or within their 28-page programme is there any signposting for those affected by the production. This, of course, begs a further question, particularly to those who still feel that further action may be a frivolous optional extra: are there not instances where productions that cause strong emotional reactions in audiences have a duty of care to at least provide their patrons with more information on the issues? It’s interesting to see that the BBC have started to do this after their television shows and radio programmes.

Speaking as someone who sees theatre purely from an audience perspective, I’ve reached the conclusion that the theatre industry should do more than pay lip service to social engagement. Charities should become more involved, venues should be more proactive, production companies need more support and, going right back to the training grounds, drama schools should do more to educate their students about taking this engagement seriously. Of course,

extending the debate about the show isn’t the only benefit here; the byproduct of all this is a continued relationship with audiences, which – in a world where data is king – would seem to be of great value to all.

David Graham, a philanthropist and businessman, established the SIT-UP awards to encourage theatre to achieve greater social engagement with its audience. The winner will be announced on Saturday.