Opinion: Theatre Breaks Down, And Secret Cinema is No Exception

Secret CinemaThere’s been outcry in the theatre world in the past week. Secret Cinema’s incredibly ambitious staging of Back to The Future had its first few shows cancelled, disappointing literally thousands of fans in some cases just hours before they were to attend the performance.

It’s been a social media storm in a tea-cup, with Secret Cinema’s digital PR presence being heavily criticised for how it’s been dealing with some very understandably upset fans, and the rest of the media lapping the drama up for its own benefit. But for all the furore it has caused, we seem to have forgotten a very basic fact about theatre: sometimes it doesn’t work.

Theatre Breaks. Get Over It.

Theatre has always been quite a technical endeavour, and the more ambitious it gets, there are more chances for it to go wrong. Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is probably the most renowned shows that physically didn’t work, with technology malfunctions and even accidents and injuries amongst the cast (let alone the panning it got from critics and audiences alike) making it go down as one of the most infamous Broadway productions of all time. Shows were cancelled, and some performances stopped part-way through. It tried to be an extravaganza of techno-theatrics, but it seems to fall on its own sword far too many times due to its ambition and complexity. Even when witnessing the technological wizardry of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the little train at the finale of Act I failed to move when it should have. Hardly a show-cancelling fault, but it just made you realise about just how much could go wrong within that production at any moment. If you can’t get the little things right, what hope is there for the bigger things? Who knew that the show would ultimately succumb to ageing plasterwork.

But it’s not just the colossal mechanical scale of some shows that cause a production to go wrong. Even more humble productions can have their problems. When I went to see Akram Kahn’s brilliant DESH the audience were sat for nearly an hour after the show’s billed curtain-up time as crew tried to sort out digital projection difficulties, with rumours of the performance, one of a very few, being cancelled. Thankfully it wasn’t.

Non-technical things can stop a performance too, specifically the cast itself. They could be ill, stuck in a location, or even have absconded, leading to cancelled performances. On the fringe, understudies are few and far between, and a poorly cast member can really put the brakes on a run with disastrous effect. Death, as was the case with Michael Jackson, is the ultimate show-stopper.

Even fraud has put a stop to shows, such as what happened with Best of Friends.

Though a performance may not get cancelled if something goes wrong, seasoned theatre-goers know to brace themselves for a little disappointment. David Tennant’s absence from Hamlet was something that, despite specifically paying to see him, patrons just had to deal with. Connie Fisher and Martine McCutcheon drew similar ire for their missed performances in The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady respectively. But there’s little you can do when that happens. Sometimes the billed leads can’t always be there, sometimes the show’s technology doesn’t quite work, or sometimes the show has to be cancelled altogether. There is always a lot of understandably disappointed audiences in the wake as a result, but it’s nothing new.

Death By Hype

Secret Cinema’s plight is caused partly by its own ambition. This is a huge theatrical project, the biggest in London since Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, and arguably much larger. But it’s not necessarily because it bit off more than it can chew with regards to building Hill Valley and hiring and rehearsing the 80+ actors. In a recent interview with The Independent, founder Fabian Riggall quietly points the finger at bureaucratic interference/oversight rather than negligence and/or tardiness as the rumours would have it. But why things have gone so sour is much more because of the hype the event has created.

Taking a cult film and giving it such an audacious performance was always going to do two things. Firstly, it was going to attract people who wouldn’t usually go to the theatre, and therefore might not be used to some of the disappointments that more regular patrons would steel themselves for, let alone have the right type of expectations for this type of theatre event that you’d expect.

Secondly, it becomes such a big and anticipated occasion that the margin for error is reduced to pretty much zero, as expectations for the show become close to unreasonable especially given the high price of tickets. That is by no means to say that those who have spent a lot of time, money, and even travel to the show are unjustified in their tweet-vented upset. It means that Secret Cinema now have to deal with trying to manage the truly exceptional customer expectations created by their product, and some truly remarkable accounts from customers about being cancelled on to go with it.

Yes. It’s a royal pain and a huge disappointment if you were one of myriad patrons that have been disappointed over the past few days, and it is generally unacceptable that the product you bought become unavailable or isn’t as promised. But if you’ve planned to go to previews and very early performances of a massively ambitious theatre project, brimming with technical and legal/corporate complexity, then don’t be so surprised when the show doesn’t go on. When you pay for a show, especially one so bold in its remit, you also pay for the chance it might not work: like you do when you buy any other product like a new TV or a car. When that happens, you go through the processes of getting a replacement or a refund, like what Secret Cinema are offering all customers affected. You’re not the first theatre-goer in London to have been cancelled on or disappointed, and you certainly won’t be the last.

From another point of view, the aforementioned The Drowned Man drew criticism for parts of the complex being unfinished during its preview period. Would it have been better to just cancel than to have people pay for an incomplete show? Would you willingly have gotten involved in an incomplete or even potentially unsafe Hill Valley experience for £53?

If you’re one of those who went to a lot of effort to get to the show, my heart goes out to you. But there’s really nothing you can do as cancelled shows are not uncommon, but thankfully still a relative rarity. There certainly are questions about how well/badly Secret Cinema have handled the situation and what more could have been done to prevent it (hindsight is a wonderful thing), and this is yet another case-study for the impact of social media in journalism and on business/customer relations. But maybe we should be focusing our scrutiny on producers truncating runs and disappointing ticket holders due to less transparent reasons – cf: The Full Monty?

Back to the Future plays on various dates until 31st August 2014. To book tickets, visit www.secretcinema.org.

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