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Street Theatre: legitimate art form or public nuisance

01:00 Mon 23rd Jul 2001 |

A. Time was when all theatre was street theatre or held in public places such as the courtyards of inns The exceptions were those that took place in private residences and churches. In Britain Mystery Plays, which dramatised aspects of Christian belief and history, were a major form of popular theatrical entertainment. These would take place in various venues - usually outdoors - throughout the towns and cities of the country. It wasn't until the late middle ages that dedicated buildings - the recreated Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London is an example of an 16th-century theatre - began to be erected purely for the purpose of dramatic entertainment, and then they were often closed down during periods of moral 'rejuvenation'.

Q. So, legitimate art form or public nuisance

A. Today, there is a burgeoning movement to take theatre away from the confines of the established theatre - and all the perceived snobbery that surrounds it - and bring it back to the streets. While some street entertainment - including theatrical performances - are little more than low-grade hamming and are indeed irritating, there is a great deal of high-quality work, from original pieces to the classics, comedy and satire to 'issues' pieces, featuring both 'name' actors and unknowns.

Q. Where can you see good street theatre

A. On a single weekend in May 2001, 150,000 people turned up to watch outdoor theatre performances as part of the annual Streets of Brighton Festival. That same month, at the X-Trax Festival in Manchester, 100,000 turned out for an event that included Avanti Display's transformation of Manchester town hall into a water fountain. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is always host to great street entertainment, from freak shows to the one of the smallest theatres in the world, the Head Theatre.

Q. So it's popular then

A. Yes, street theatre is the fastest growing art form in this country. Public open spaces are being transformed as the South Bank, Somerset House and the Barbican Centre in London all play host to street arts, and every city in Britain wants to have its own street arts festival.

Q. What makes it popular

A. At a time when theatres spend many thousands on marketing to try to retain and attract audiences through the door, theatre is still often ignored by the public at large. Street theatre, on the other hand, has an accessibility not shared by its indoor cousin and it attracts the sorts of crowds that you normally associate with sporting events.

Q. Is it publicly funded in the UK

A. The growing public appetite for street arts is not yet matched by an infrastructure that will help it develop and grow. Street theatre remains largely ignored by the establishment, critics and arts funding bodies. Less than 1% of funding for street arts comes from the Arts Council of England, which has just one officer dedicated to its interests. In France, the ministry of culture has an entire department devoted to street arts.

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By Simon Smith

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