Secret theatre: To Be or Not To Be (thoughts on the Lyric Hammersmith project – but no spoilers)

The company in rehearsal

The company in rehearsal

And so, somewhat unexpectedly, we have a debate in our hands. Last night the first play of Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre initiative started performances (it’s the first play to start performances but it’s Secret Show no 2, stay with me) and Mark Shenton took to twitter to reveal the title. A certain amount of outrage followed – with Jake Orr writing a blog and several tweets expressing displeasure (we have to accept a theatre outrage is a very contained affair. I live for the day when arguments about theatre will spill over to the streets).

There is no question, spoiling it for people who want to play the game makes you a party pooper, no matter how you look at it. But other questions also spring to mind.

How much does it matter? If your excitement about a production is limited to not knowing the play, it can’t be a very good production.

Is the initiative revolutionary enough? The creators of the initiative claim this is a new way of making theatre, Sean Holmes being interviewed at the Guardian is a good example of that. But is it? Does it change anything in rehearsal? As for the audience, I often go to plays where I know the title and maybe the playwright but nothing else. How is this different?

I like the idea of a single company creating theatre in a flexible way, where productions cross pollinate for a richer result. But secrecy adds little to it, and in the long run it might damage a play’s impact and the relationship to the audience. Would Jerusalem – add here the play and production of your choice – have the same impact if much of it was meant to be secret? How do you talk about it? At best you create an audience loyal but insulated. The privilege is in being in the know, spreading the secret dilutes its power.

All of this makes me sound more negative than I feel. I like a good game, but it’s still a game. I would love to see more repertory companies creating theatre and fostering a close relationship to their audience. But secrecy can’t be part of the deal long term.

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