A vision is the image that a theatre must have of its goals before it sets out to reach them. If you don’t know where you are going, then you won’t get there. The ‘visioning thing’ has been key to Arts Council ‘stabilisation’, 'sustain', 'thrive' and ‘resilience’ funding programmes. The Laughing Audience has assisted theatre companies in revising and articulating their vision and goals. The best theatres’ vision is one which sees another policy not yet realised, usually dreamed by the artistic director as chief executive. For a vision statement to have any impact on the board, funding bodies and staff of the theatre, it should be conveyed in a dramatic way. After all, this is the theatre!
I have often re-read the Scottish critic William Archer (1856-1924), who – with Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) – wrote the influential business plan: A National Theatre, Scheme and Estimates, in 1907. This may have been partly inspired by Archer’s whimsical essay on vision statements, An Impossible Theatre, written for a Christmas annual in 1887:
…..Dreaming is one of my foibles. I have generally a stock of visions on hand; and what is more they are for the most part theatrical visions. Some of these I have already ventilated (‘ventilating a vision’ is a very Christmassy metaphor); a dream of a Play-Printing Society, for example, and a grandiose vision of an International Anglo-Saxon Theatre. Several of the most visionary, however, have not yet seen the light, and one of these is at your service.
All dreams, it is sometimes maintained, have a certain foundation in fact; or, in other words, the subjects about which we dream have always been present, more or less recently, and more or less prominently, in our waking thoughts. I doubt whether this is a universal truth, but it is true of the dream I am about to relate.
Everyone must have noticed how the recent revival of public interest in things theatrical has manifested itself not only in the increasing- vogue of the regular playhouses, but in the up-springing of all sorts of outside enterprises, ‘side-shows’ they may be called supported by the cultured and curious for purposes of literary and archaeological experiment. We have had classical plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Mr. Todhunter; we have had Browning performances and a Shelley performance; we have had Pastoral renderings of Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Tennyson; and we have had a play of Dryden's and a play of Charles Lamb's acted by the Dramatic Students. All these productions have excited much interest and been well attended, though the prices at some of them were very high. It is clear, then, that there is a certain public for ‘le théâtre impossible’ in all its phases, even when it more than verges towards le theatre où l’on s’ennuie. To put it differently, there are thousands of people who either have or pretend to have a taste for such dramatic entertainments as are caviar to the general and of these thousands there are hundreds who are able and willing to back their preference, to a reasonable amount, in hard cash.
This, then, is my vision. I dreamed it, let me add, after returning from the performance of ‘Helena in Troas’ at the late Mr Godwin's Greek Theatre; a performance which, with all its imperfections, was well calculated to set one a-dreaming.
I dreamed that a certain number of wealthy and aesthetic persons had combined to found a theatre, with the express design of affording a home for plays, old and new, which are impossible at the ordinary commercial theatres. Even the design of the building was as novel as it was simple. The architect had studied the classic theatres, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, and the great modern theatres of France, Germany, and America; and from all he had adopted suitable details. Externally the building at once announced its uses to the eye of the most casual observer. Its ground plan consisted of a square, two small semicircles springing from opposite sides of the square, and a large semi-circle having a third side of the square for its chord. Upon the square was erected a lofty building – containing the stage with its appurtenances; the small semi-circular afforded space for dressing .rooms and offices; and on the larger semi-circle rose the pavilion of the auditorium. Internally, the auditorium was modelled, with some modifications, on the antique theatre. The object of the architect had been, not to seat as many people as the ‘space’ would possibly contain, but to give everyone elbow room, knee room, and a perfect view of the whole stage. The flat semi-circle which the Greeks called the orchestra, though generally given up to the audience, was arranged so that, when a classic play was performed, it could be restored to its classic uses. Around it rose five or six concentric tiers of seats, intersected by five wide gangways forming radii of the semi-circle and corresponding with five entrance doors (vomitories) in the outer wall. A single tier of twenty -boxes, topped by a shallow gallery, completed the auditorium, round which ran a wide corridor, serving the purpose of a crush room and promenade. Latecomers and early goers could enter and depart without incommoding the rest of the audience any more than in a drawing-room. Every seat in the theatre was a roomy and substantial arm-chair, so that whoso listed could sleep as comfortably as at his club. This (I saw in my vision) was one of the chief attractions of the house. Doctors soon began to recommend sufferers from insomnia to take a stall on Browning nights.
The theatre was built by twenty subscribers, each of whom contributed £2,500 – in a dream one has vague ideas of the value of money. This conferred a right to a vote in the election of the committee of management, a board of five, not necessarily composed of subscribers alone. Each subscriber, too, was owner in perpetuity of one of the twenty boxes, which he could use himself, or give away, or sublet, just as he pleased.
No permanent company was attached to the theatre. It was essentially a place for occasional performances of exotic, or eccentric, or ultra-legitimate, or ultra-illegitimate, or antediluvian, or postmillennial plays. The committee, indeed, did not generally take the initiative in organising performances. It was, as a rule, outsiders, whether individuals or societies, who requested the use of the theatre for one, two, three, or an indefinite number of afternoons or evenings. The committee then decided whether the proposed performances were of an admissible nature, and, if so, accorded the use of the theatre on such terms as might be arranged. Sometimes a fixed sum was demanded as rent; sometimes a certain percentage of the gross receipts went to the proprietors; sometimes, in ‘deserving cases’, the theatre was lent gratuitously. Societies burgeoned on every hand, some permanent, some temporary. There was a Hellenic Society which worked steadily through the Athenian dramatists; a Kalidasa Society organised a yearly performance of the Sakúntala; the Westminster play was transferred from its draughty dormitory to this more convenient abode; a Calderon Society cultivated the masterpieces of the Spanish drama; a Marlowe Society produced ‘Dr. Faustus’ and ‘The Jew of Malta; a Neglected Shakespeare Society produced the historical plays in chronological order, and made a great hit with ‘Troilus and Cressida’; which was the talk of the town for weeks; there was a Webster, a Ford, a Tourneur, a Middleton, and Jonson Society; a Charles Lamb Society devoted itself to the Artificial Comedy of the Restoration; a Lake Poet Society had for its repertory ‘Remorse’ and ‘The Borderers’; there was a Tennyson Society, a Michael Field Society, and a Swinburne Society, which produced ‘Atalanta in Calydon’ as an opera, and devoted twelve solid hours to a performance of ‘Bothwel’. The Browning Society gave cyclic performances of the Master's works, and the Shelley Society soared from ‘The Cenci’ to ‘Hellas’. and from ‘Henas’ to' the ‘Prometheus Unbound’. As I was on the free list (in my dream) I assisted at most of these performances, and cannot conscientiously say that they were, as a rule, exhilarating. They were interesting and instructive, however, and as it came to be considered the correct thing to know all that went on at this theatre, they generally drew good audiences at high prices; and then the seats were really luxurious!
Sometimes, however, the Committee took the initiative, and then matters were livelier. One of the' objects of the Founders was to make their theatre a sort of dramatic Grosvenor Gallery – a place of exhibition for modern plays of merit which were too advanced, or too original, or in any way too peculiar to be accepted or appreciated at the ordinary playhouses. Many plays were written, by professional playwrights. and other men of talent, specially for presentation before the peculiar audience of this theatre – a tolerant, intelligent, courteous, undemonstrative audience, which applauded discreetly, censured nothing openly, except flagrant bad taste, and did .not drown wit in guffaws of laughter. One of the earliest of these literary successes, I remember, was ‘Beau Austin’, by Robert Louis Stevenson and William Ernest Henley, a play too unpleasant in subject to please the general public, but very delightful to this special audience by reason of the exquisite finish of its workmanship. Need I say that the performers in these plays were never amateurs? As the afternoon was the usual time of performance, and as the Committee was able to offer handsome fees, the best actors and actresses were at their disposal, as well as the young and ambitious talents whom they made it their business to encourage.
As a place of refuge, too, from the timorous tyranny of the Lord Chamberlain the theatre was exceedingly useful. Did the distinguished Snooks write a play too serious to pass muster at St James's – a play in which religion, or politics, or morals were discussed as reasonable people discuss such subjects in private life, and as they must, of course, on no account be discussed on the stage? Why, in that case, we at once formed a Snooks Society, subscription half-a-guinea, and gave private and gratuitous performances of the prohibited play before members of the said Snooks Society and their friends, including the critics. If the play was an interesting one, and went well on its first performance, an astonishing number of people would hasten to join the Snooks Society, and there would be twenty, or thirty, or fifty consecutive private performances of the play, the Society, meanwhile, handing on to the distinguished Snooks, as a testimony of respect, a certain proportion of the subscriptions received.
Another frequent and much appreciated practice of the Committee was to invite companies of foreign actors to London, to perform either the classic plays of other literatures or new pieces which happened to be in vogue. Thus the leading members of the Odéon company, together with Colonne’s orchestra, were engaged to give a series of performances of Daudet's ‘L'Arlésienne’ – with the music of Bizet. It was at this theatre that the ‘Hamlet’ of the Théâtre Français was reproduced, and every now and then a detachment of the Comédie Française, happening to be en congé, would come over to play Molière, Marivaux, or Alfred de Musset. The best actors of Germany not only played from time to time the masterpieces of Goethe and Schiller, but showed us how Shakespeare is treated in the Fatherland. Even the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen occasionally sent specimens of the highly developed dramatic art of Scandinavia, and (with the aid of translations) Molbech's ‘Ambrosius’, was found as delightful as Ibsen's ‘Et Dukkekjem’ was suggestive, impressive, and unsatisfying.
At this point my vision vanished. The force of phantasy could no further go. Having 'conjured up the notion of Ibsen in the original interesting an English audience, my imagination came, with a jerk, to the end of its tether – and I awoke. My impossible theatre had reached the culminating point of impossibility; and, as I looked back upon my vision and thought of the performances of ‘Bothwell’ and the ‘Prometheus Unbound’, I could not but say to myself, like the Pope in Victor Hugo’s poem – Quel rêve affreux je viens de faire? Don’t you agree with me?
- William Archer, ‘An Impossible Theatre’, in Clement Scott, (ed.), The Theatre Annual, London, Carson & Comerford, 1887, pp. 30-34.
This is an example of an early twenty-first century vision statement, from Northern Broadsides Theatre Company, Halifax, developed by Paul Iles with the artistic director, Barrie Rutter, in 2004:
Northern Broadsides is one of the best theatre companies in Britain; our record of accomplishment is living proof that theatre matters
Our mission is to perform exemplary theatrical experiences, developing theatre artists and so promote theatre in Yorkshire and elsewhere in Britain
2. To be a theatre company that is dedicated, light, restless, mettlesome and vigorous
3. To exist in the present tense: selecting plays that are relevant to contemporary society; this includes the classics of dramatic literature which provide the discipline against which new work is measured
4. To stage productions with large casts, where the actors dazzle through ensemble performances
5. To identify new long term partnerships with other professional theatre artists: writers, directors, designers, composers, chorographers and dramaturges whose ability and potential we venerate
7. To maintain a commitment to the support, motivation and progress of all artists and staff working with Northern Broadsides
8. Through our education programme, to involve members of our communities of all ages as audiences and participants
9. To provide the highest quality of theatre at the lowest possible price
10. To perform in a variety of orthodox theatres in the British presenting-theatre circuits
11. To develop a rural touring circuit in the North Yorkshire communities of Richmond, Settle and Skipton
13. To maintain and further relationships with our principal revenue investment stakeholder: Arts Council England, Yorkshire
14. To maintain and develop our affiliations with the Friends of Northern Broadsides; corporate business sponsors, philanthropic trusts and foundations, and all other encouragers of the Company
15. To make available the work of Northern Broadsides as a resource for all people of Halifax and other communities where we perform
16. To promote social inclusion
17. To operate the Company on commercial principles as an efficiently and well-managed business, optimising the net financial contributions from all income generating aspects of the Company
18. To remain connected at all times to the realities of theatrical production