Theatre is for everyone

An essay by Ailbhe Elizabeth Noonan

I have developed a lot over the past year. That’s quite a common sentiment given that lockdown has allowed many people to examine aspects of themselves they may not have had the time to before, but looking back on the year, I feel I have grown so much. Part of the reason for this is a newfound love of theatre and a new angle towards it – when I was given the role of theatre editor for The University Times, I was thrown off the deep end into a world that meant so much to me and yet I didn’t know much about. Over the course of the year, I have discovered not just parts of myself but also how resilient theatre is, and reinforced something that has always been a core belief of mine: theatre is for everyone.

            Theatre has always pushed the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable, and given life to controversial and at times downright uncomfortable realisations about humanity and the world we live in. Even the strict confines of Greek theatre allowed for subtle social commentary through the chorus. Of course, the art form has come a long way since then, and with it the boundaries have only grown. Theatre has become a medium through which one discovers oneself by putting on the mask of someone else. By entering someone else’s headspace, whether that’s as a writer envisioning a show, a director bringing words to life, or an actor putting on a show, you learn new things about your own views. This lends itself well to empathy – if you are literally putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, there is a much higher likelihood that you will try to understand that person’s reality.

            With new up-and-coming artists producing incredible work all the time, it’s easy to see that the future of theatre is bright. I have been so fortunate to be able to speak to these artists about their work, and to review some of it as well. I’m so proud to have known the cohort of people graduating over the next few years, and I can’t wait to see how they change the face of theatre once again with their dynamism and brilliant ideas. Ours is the generation that has not only had to adapt to the climate crisis, but also completely redefine the idea of theatre in the face of the pandemic. All the zoom performances, radio plays, and interactive online shows have made my year, and without the light that the arts brought to my life, I would have suffered a lot more. The arts and theatre provide a form of escapism quite unlike any other, whether that be as part of the cast or crew or as an audience member sitting at home.

            It has also given me a huge confidence boost – while learning to write, I have had to cut out so much fluff. I have had to teach myself to be assertive, to put forth thoughts and not shy away from criticism. After all, my work is my review, and the only one in control of what is said is me (and the editors above me who have helped me on this journey!) It’s a strange thing that women are taught to be meek and submissive in our writing, to always be deferential. We have been told that our own needs should bend to the whims of others regardless of the cost, and that we as people are inferior to the more assertive voices of our counterparts. Theatre and theatre criticism directly contradict this – in the world of theatre, anything is possible. The only limit is your imagination and the materials you’re working with. The only limit to theatre criticism is the word count of the piece I’m writing. I am free to express my delight, surprise, or disappointment in a manner I see fit – there is no room for fluff unless I specifically want it to be there. There is still a gender imbalance in the industry, and sexism is still unfortunately present, and that should not be diminished. But for me as a young, relatively well-off woman, the boundaries are much wider and being in the theatre community has given me the strength and confidence to put myself out there and push myself to get rid of these habits and write what I really think.

            And yet, over the course of my year as theatre editor, I have realised that the industry as it stands does not allow everyone the same opportunities. Despite being an incredibly flexible and versatile medium that can accommodate almost anything, there are still those that face accessibility issues for reasons beyond their control. Buildings that house theatres are still very inaccessible for anyone who is not able-bodied, resulting in a large portion of artists and audience members being denied opportunities to work with and enjoy performances. While I myself am not disabled and as such will never really understand that experience, I wanted to take the opportunity given to me to highlight the voices of those who are and whose needs should be listened to. There is so much potential for accessibility in the future, and the work is already being done by several companies. Zoom theatre also provides a good model – with zoom theatre, it has never been easier to reach an audience that would not normally have had access to a physical venue. That said, it’s important that we don’t limit those people to only zoom theatre, and implementing small but easy steps such as adding a social story to the show information that documents what the show is about, the route to the venue, and what will happen when you get there will allow these people to feel welcomed in a community that should be open to everyone.

There are also class barriers – it can be much harder for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to access the arts in the same manner as a middle-class family. Youth Theatre groups and community theatre have done so much good on this front and have given so many people a safe space to express themselves, but it’s safe to say there is still work to be done. People also face discrimination based on their race, but there are people better qualified than me to speak on issues of racism in theatre. It’s important that we find and listen to them, and platform their work. Creators from a minority background deserve to have their work platformed the same as anyone else. I know I still have work to do on all these fronts, I’m definitely not perfect, but it’s important work that will help to make the world of theatre a better place.

            If there’s one thing that I have always believed, it’s that theatre should be for everyone. Perhaps this is idealistic, but I believe that with an increased awareness and the means to change the very meaning of theatre, our generation can change the industry for the better and really get us to the point where theatre can be for everyone, no matter who you are. A world in which the only barrier to entry is your imagination.

Ailbhe Noonan is a second-year English student at Trinity College ​Dublin. She is an aspiring writer and the current theatre editor of the University Times, which has given her both a creative and critical look at the theatre industry. Her poetry takes a whimsical examination of what it means to be a writer and artist, as well as more serious topics such as identity and what it means to find your place. 

This essay was inspired by the new perspective gained from being Theatre Editor. It is about everything Noonan has learnt so far in this position, from the people she has had the privilege of talking to this year.