Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Interview with Michael Billington

Interview with Michael Billington

A few weeks ago I interviewed Michael Billington for a Journalism assesment. He was an incredibly friendly gentleman, buying me cake and coffee for the interview. All it took was a single email and he was willing to meet me before a show. It is refreshing to see somebody highly regarded in the theatre industry act so humbly towards somebody who wishes to be part of it. His views on education and what is shown at theatre's in London are particularly liable to heated debate, please comment. Here is the transcript in full:

What I really wanted to know, In our course we have been studying Journalism in relation to popular culture. We studied music, film, new journalism, cultural identity. We didn’t study theatre. Why is theatre not considered Popular Culture?
That’s a strange one really. Theatre differs from these other art forms because it is relative. It’s live, so it is relative only to those who see it at a particular time. All these other cultures, they are popular because they are instantly available.

Is there anything that can be done to make theatre popular culture?
I believe there is, yes. The National Theatre are doing screenings at the moment, I attended one not long ago. I watched it in a cinema in Chelsea and it was packed, it was being broadcast across 270 screens worldwide or something. It was incredible to see so many people wanting to see a staging of classic, to see Helen Mirren in Phedre.

Was it live?
Yes it was, a live broadcast.

Is this the future of theatre then?
Not the entire future but there is certainly a place or it. You have to understand that technology is changing all the rules, in everyday life and inevitably in theatre.

Did it not lose any of its vitality, from not being technically live in front of you?
No it didn’t, not at all, actually it looked better on TV, as if you had the best seats imaginable, at the very front in the stalls, everything was high definition. It was live, so it still had the danger of live performance. It was enthralling really.

I often find, when I go to the theatre, I am the youngest person there by a good thirty years. This is something that needs to change if theatre is to be relevant in culture. How can this be changed, do you agree with this?
I do yes, theatre audiences can be predominantly grey, myself included. But things are being introduced to change this, the Travelex season at the National, and the entry pass are both examples. Also the Young Vic is encouraging new writers and youth work. Its promising for youth, I really do think that, and also the National’s production of Nation, o War Horse, they are actively encouraging younger audiences.

I was reading your book, State of the Nation, and what struck me was a quote from J.B Priestley, who said something along the lines of, “Shakespeare threatens theatre because it takes all the best actors, all the money and it crowds the west end. Its prioritised almost. What do you make of this now?
Well Priestley said this 1957 I believe, and it is in no way relevant, actually I think today the reverse may well be true. I was looking at the Arts Council funding figures earlier today yesterday, they are to be released soon and what I saw fascinated me. A staggering 42% of commissioned performances in London are new writing. If anything I believe we are losing sight of the classics. I am all for invigorating and challenging new writing, but the classics are disappearing, they are forgotten.

What can the classics offer us? Are they not outdated merely by definition, I mean, would you like to see them revamped or performed the way the Globe performs Shakespeare.
I would like to see them performed in any way, any way is better than not at all. I think the classics offer us a language, a language we don’t know, a dictionary if you will that gives us an invaluable insight into history, from language and the classics we can experience the lives of past generations. We can literally live, if just for 90minutes inside Sheridan’s 18th Century. You don’t get this anywhere else so we cant lose it in the theatre. People forget that plays didn’t start with Beckett.

I walked around my Student Union the other day, and I asked groups of people what theatre meant for them, and the only truly worthwhile reply came from a group of sport lads. One said to me theatre is pointless, if he wanted drama he would watch Eastenders, if he wanted History there is a channel for that. What would your response be? I want to know why this is believed by what seems to be many.
Eastenders? I didn’t realise Eastenders was the in-thing anymore. I think this stems from the act that visiting the theatre is not mandatory. It is a choice, one that’s quite easy to ignore. There is a bias of culture which is quite frightening, it’s a result of the amount of exposure the X factor and Strictly Come Dancing receive, these shows are represented by the media as the heart of our culture. I’m proud to say I watch neither. He makes it seems as if nobody cares about theatre, but I wouldn’t worry about this, its not a negative thing. You see thousands pour out of theatre’s every night. I would also argue that Musicals are popular culture, the latest west end star is always pictured in the Evening Standard.

That’s true, but I would argue that musicals, in particular those of Andrew Lloyd Webber are reversing theatre to its lowest common denominator. Talent shows which determine lead stars are turning performances into commercial commodities, they serve no other purpose.
As in Joseph and Sound of Music? Yes I suppose they do, this is shown by the fact these shows sell out before they even begin. To me, actually, I would be bold and say that this exposes the cultural failings of the BBC. It fails completely to show any theatre. When I grew up there was a play on television every week. I saw my first Pinter on TV, The Caretaker. My first Shakespeare. The BBC is only interested in making stars. I would call the BBC a cultural failure.

There are a lot of people I know who attend drama schools and courses because they want to become these big names, they want the name in lights and the standing ovations, but I feel many schools and universities cannot prepare them for this. Do you think schools can do anything to promote theatre as a cultural institution, a popular culture as well?
I’m not sure if I’m qualified to comment on this, but I think the distinctions between drama and theatre have become blurred. Theatre is explored entirely as a collaborative art, and whilst this is no doubt a truth about theatre, there is little or no emphasis on text. Nobody reads plays anymore, everybody is busy creating gesture and movement, the basics are forgotten.

While I have been encouraged to read plays, few of the modules I have taken have encouraged me to read and completely discect particular plays. Except theatre theory, which I seem to be alone in really enjoying.
Yes there is a joy and a lot to be learnt in taking a text apart and analysing every inch of it thoroughly. In the universities I have been to, and I am not saying your university here, but the emphasis is always heavily on visceral theatre, on the Complicites and the Punchdrunks, on movement theatre. I read today in the Arts Council guidelines that this accounts for a mere 3% of theatre. So maybe the fact is universities are ineffective at preparing students because it prepares them for the smallest percentage of theatre. People tend to forget that there is more to theatre than the avant-garde and complicite. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this type of theatre, I am saying that there is no mix, there are no classics, there is no history.

If somebody told you that theatre was pointless, it was meaningless and did nothing but entertain, that they gained sufficient entertainment rom their television, what would you tell them, what would you recommend they see?
Theatre has infinite possibilities, this is why it is so exciting to work within theatre, there is a sense that anything can be achieved. I think theatre reflects upon society with more accuracy, more details than is capable with film and TV. Its also way ahead of the game, I mean we have had the Power of Yes, we have Enron, theatre is the first to explore the financial crisis in depth, both the hows and more importantly the whys. This was true of the Iraq war, it was theatre that first voiced its suspicions about the supposed weapons of mass destruction.

I believe that’s true, certainly, my example would be the Afghanistan season in Kilburn, but why theatre and not an extended documentary on television?
Theatre is alive in front of us, and it allows us to explore who we are. It is larger than life, but it is still life itself. It allows us to realise our dilemmas, and realise that these dilemmas, whilst personal to us are also shared with a large community. it’s the community a theatre creates that allows us to look at the nature of being human.

Coming back to theatre as pop culture, I think it struggles because so many people have preconceptions of theatre. I’m from a working class family, and when I told my dad I was going to study drama, he replied, ’sounds gay’. Why does this prejudice exist against theatre?
I wouldn’t worry too much, I think there are enough of us theatre lovers to form a substantial minority. Did you know that more people attend the theatre than attend football matches?

Then maybe it’s the lack of exposure that stops theatre becoming a true popular culture? Sport, for example, dominates a newspaper with a large section at the back and often pull out sections on a Monday.
Yes theatre is marginalised in newspapers, even newspapers like mine which believes itself to have a heavy interest in the arts. It only gets one page a day, and again I think it returns to bias, a cultural bias. But I wouldn’t be negative about theatre, not at all, I don’t know if you have read it but the Guardian just published an article on theatre asking if this is ‘The Golden Age’ for theatre. It all started because we had a lady come to work on our theatre team, she quit a higher paid job in television to take an almost bottom of the ladder job in theatre. When we asked her why, she replied, ‘this is where its at’. So theatre has become hip, if hip is still a hip word.

Why would you give up television for theatre? Why could you achieve more in theatre?
It allows expression that is unseen on television. Particularly, TV is politically cautious, it has to be. Theatre can explore things in depth and say what it wants. We can all learn from theatre, its depth and its ambition. An excellent example of this is the Afghan season at the Tricycle, it came about way before television started making documentaries about our plight. It explored not just today, but the historical foundations of the country, it revealed a country that is unconquerable and it inspired the television documentaries. What’s brilliant about this season is it is being moved to America. It also did very well at the Box Office, every night but one a sell out I believe. Theatre spreads ripples, a play that starts in theatre has connotations that resonate in culture.

Finally, if theatre disappeared tomorrow, if suddenly legislation was passed that the money was wasted, what would everybody lose?
Without theatre? Gosh, that’s hard to believe, that’s a very good question. I think we would lose the excitement of interaction. With a screen this interaction is phoney. We would lose the joy of seeing the essence of human life. Plays offer an image of the human to be dissected and explored. In a world where technology isolates us, theatre is there to be shared.


  1. Apologies for the other post which is unreadable!

  2. Ben this is a brillaint interview ! you asked intelligent and isnightful questions thanks for putting it up . I particulary liked your last question and Michael billingtons answer , however the answer you got from the boys who did sport was clearly unthought out and I found myself asking why to people periceve theatre like this ? I am sure if you had said to them sport was pointless they would have had a lot to say !

  3. Fantastic Ben!!! This is gold dust and absolutely wonderful. You've asked superb questions and ellicited thought provoking responses. We're currently putting together a second Drama St Mary's brochure, like we did last year, could we use this in the copy?

  4. Please feel free to use this Mark, i cant think of a better way to have something published! I have the article i wrote too, shall i post it on the blog?