Why Theatre Matters (And What We Must Do To Save It)
By Ross Gaynor
*For the purposes of this article, the word ‘theatre’ can be exchanged for any artform of your choosing, theatre is simply my artform of choice. I performed my first play in 2004 (excluding the obligatory mumbled Nativities of childhood). I was thirteen years old, and more or less had to be dragged by the ears. The show was Honk!(the Ugly Duckling Musical), I was in the chorus, I had no lines, and I missed the first week of rehearsals because I resisted attending for so long – yet, at that stage, it was the most thrilling experience of my short life. I made friends that I still have today, I sang, I danced(both for the first time), I performed in front of an audience of watchful eyes, and most importantly, I met girls! Which for a thirteen-year-old boy in an all-boys school, was a very educational experience! For all forthcoming plays and musicals, I most certainly did not have to be dragged by the ears to audition (nor was I first in line, because that wouldn’t have been cool), but I did audition early and I did audition often. As the years went on, studying drama, then acting, and ultimately becoming a professional, my priorities really didn’t change that much – I got to act, sing, dance, make lifelong friends, and again, (very importantly, but not most importantly anymore) meet girls. As an educator, I teach young adults who struggle to make friends, struggle to develop romances, and deeply struggle to get up on stage and perform. These are all lessons I learned nearly twenty years ago, doing Honk!(The Ugly Ducking Musical), and believe me, they are easier to learn at thirteen than they are thirty. The concept of jumping in the deep end, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, saying yes, and ultimately, having a confident and assured sense of self – are all lessons learned from performing on stage(or in this first instance, being forced to perform on stage). There are many profound reasons for why people fall in love with the theatre – the politics of Brecht; the absurdity of Beckett; the oppression of Boal – but my reasons for loving it are much more human…it allowed me to make friends, meet girls(have I said that before?), and learn how to stand and talk in front of hundreds of people, which meant standing and talking to any one person became a thousand times easier. In other words, it gave me the confidence and ease to navigate my way through this oftentimes cruel world and allowed me the opportunity to develop my sense of self through that. It is for these reasons, whose importance far exceed profundity, that I was determined that no plague, politics, or ignorance would ever allow the theatre to die, it simply has too much to give to too many – and lives, though not ruined, could never be as rich without. My name is Ross Gaynor, and I am artistic director of The Lock Inn (thelockinn.io) – a live, online, and interactive events venue. The Lock Inn was conceived and eventually birthed through the aforementioned plague by James Stafford. James is an incredible events director, and I am proud to say, one of my best friends, though we are yet to meet face to face. For that is the year we are in, you can start a business, make a success of that business, and make a lifelong friend, all without ever being in the same room, town, or country together. Following on from its immaculate conception within the cerebral womb of James, the two of us together decided to raise The Lock Inn as our child, and make it the best venue in town, albeit there was no venue, and really, there was no town. The world is our oyster, the global audience our desire, and the restrictions on us are non-existent. I will briefly describe to you what we do, how we do it, and ultimately why.
In the list of ‘What’, we have programmed theatre – our first play, Glassmask’s production of Mark O’Rowe’s Howie The Rookie, which is undoubtedly the most truthful and faithful production of Howie since its premiere twenty years ago; Reboot Live, the first theatre festival whereby every single play was streamed live and online. Reboot employed 50 theatre artists and premiered 18 new plays. Having both a socially-distanced physical audience of ten, and a much larger global audience online; Blind, an audio-horror experience, which was broadcast over Halloween, designed to be listened to through earphones, alone, and in the dark; They Float Up, a co-production with the legendary Bewley’s Café Theatre, which is a restaging of their 2019 hit production. For this, we have restaged it in a unique and innovative way, which we are jokingly referring to as a site-specific restaging of a stage play on film; and some extremely exciting collaborations and developments to follow.
We have programmed comedy(Jarlath Regan’s An Irishman Abroad Online Comedy Club); quizzes; music, including Sofft Nights, the largest music festival in Ireland in 2020(100 socially distanced audience members attended); and we have completely reinvented charity fundraising to take place online, doing massive fundraisers for the London Irish Centre and JW3, raising £100,000 and £350,000 for them respectively. These events were innovative because the operating costs ended up being only 3% of the total raised, making it the best ratio of cost versus money raised that they ever achieved. This innovation allows more charities to fundraise more often, more cleverly, and at a much lower cost than what they are used to, ultimately ensuring more money raised for their cause.
The Lock Inn was born, like many things, from a meeting of minds. But also, an ambition to take Irish arts, always regarded as world-class, to the world! With streaming online, rather than playing to one hundred people a night in Dublin, we have the opportunity to reach a global audience. Every drama course in the world teaches Beckett, O’Casey, Synge, McDonagh etc…every literature course teaches Joyce, Yeats, Heaney and the rest. This is a market, as yet untapped, apart from irregular world tours, that we intend to conquer.
I could go into great detail about how we film and stream our content and what each individual’s role is. But in reality, what we do is akin to alchemy. There is magic, there is trickery, and there is personality. It is these intangible factors that separate us from the rest and these are the reasons why no other streamed content has matched what we’re doing.
Now, we get to the ‘Why’. Aside from world domination or ambition, The Lock Inn was born out of being dismayed. Dismayed by the way my trade is considered in the public eye, dismayed by the way my trade is treated by the government, and dismayed by the way my trade is left at the whim of arts council funding to make it happen. So many incredible artists sit at home waiting for the telephone to ring. So many incredible artists’ groundbreaking ideas will never be realized because a small group of people have deemed it not worthy of funding. My grandmother used to say “you can sit and moan about the dark, or you can light a penny candle.” The Lock Inn is our penny candle, founded on two basic principles.
One, that something is always better than nothing. Two, Plato’s classic adage “There are only two things you should not be angry about: what you can change, and what you cannot.”
One can begrudge the leaders of our industry, or claim that the world is unfair, or one can stand up and lead by example themselves and light their penny candle – and that is what we are attempting to do. We shall not sit in the dark, and we shall change what we can. We will not go gently into that good night and furthermore, we fully believe that this is the future of the arts – a combination of both physical and online audiences. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, that physical audience will have to be limited, but eventually, there is no reason why you couldn’t have a full house in person, and ten times that audience across the world tuning in. There is no reason this can’t entirely change the way new audiences consume theatre, and art in general.
We all hate the phrase the “new normal”, but for children, teenagers, and young adults, their concept of what theatre is now will be very different to what ours was growing up – and they are the future of theatre, so who is to say they will not continue to create theatre bearing online streams in mind, thus fundamentally changing the visual and personal experience of the theatre, and making it a new and ever-adapting artform. Personally, I prefer that concept to seeing the theatre wither away like a plant without sunlight. Art is too important to allow that to happen, and we must remember that, whilst also embodying the concept of Adapt or Die. As Shaw said, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”
The freedom, confidence, and self we speak of can of course be achieved for many through sports, academia, family, career, and various other sources, all with louder and stronger lobbies than the arts. So, we will continue to do this, and continue to ensure the theatre does not die. Not so we can receive plaudits and trinkets. Not so we can achieve riches(trust me, that ain’t gonna happen). Not so we can advance our careers, or gain any sort of industry clout. We will continue to do this, so that despite yon plague, or any interruption, theatre remains in our psyche and in our consciousness, even if we are considered the annoying buzzing fly who simply won’t leave you alone, so that now and forevermore certain thirteen year old’s for whom sports et al mean nothing, will continue to make friends for life; sing; dance; act; meet girls; and ultimately – learn how to simply be.
Ross Gaynor is an actor, writer, and educator. He is also the Artistic Director of The Lock Inn. Keep up to date with Ross @ross_gaynor on Twitter and @rossgaynor on Instagram.
Check out the Lock Inn at www.thelockinn.io for great events and shows streamed at home live. Follow the Lock Inn @lockinnevents on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
All photos of Ross Gaynor were taken by Jack Breslin (@jack__breslin).