Theatre is not a mainstream form of entertainment. I know that sounds like an odd statement to begin with but let me explain. Theatre is not a mainstream form of entertainment because it is not accessible to everyone, unlike TV and film. Theatre – or rather, specific shows – only exist in a certain time and place. If you miss it, you miss out, and may sometimes have to wait years before that show appears again, and of course it will not be the same. This is very different to TV where we can watch on catch up months later and still be involved and clued-up on what’s happening as everyone has watched the same thing.
Because of the differences in how well-known these different forms of entertainment are, the people that star in them are considered differently. For example, those who act in TV and film are often considered “celebrities” (though this a word I dislike, but that’s for another time…), whilst those that are in-the-know about theatre class the cast as “stars”, but to others, they barely even know their names. Rachel Tucker who?
Due to the theatre being inaccessible to many (whether due to price or location), production companies often make choices to try and reel more audience members in to see the show – companies and shows do need to sustain themselves after all, and of course, you’d want your show to be seen by more than just a select crowd. They may do this by bringing out an old favourite such as ‘Mary Poppins’ or selecting a musical people know only as a film, such as ‘Sister Act’, or ‘Ghost’ (no coincidence they are both Whoopi Goldberg films…), or, as seems to be the case more and more often, casting well-known names in a bid to get more bums on seats.
I, personally, am not swayed by who is in a cast. If I know a show I like is in town or there’s a show with good reviews then I’ll go and see it no matter if Leona Lewis (who is currently playing Grizabella in ‘Cats’ on Broadway) or a recent unknown graduate from drama school is in it. However, it is understandable that for many, seeing a familiar name will make then want to see a show.
I certainly noticed the demographic of audience members change when I saw two plays by the Jamie Lloyd Company earlier this year. Both Dr Faustus (Duke of York’s Theatre), and The Maids (Traflagar Studios) boasted more teenage/young adult audience members, largely due to the casting of Kit Harrington (and his naked body) and Uzo Aduba respectively. Naturally, their large roles in big TV shows Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black made the relatively unknown shows appeal to more people.
Of course, celebrity castings aren’t necessarily bad news. Many well-known people trained at prestigious schools and worked in theatre before hitting the big time, so know their craft very well. Carrie Hope Fletcher, a mainstream celebrity through social media and her YouTube channel, has also introduced her army of young fans to Les Miserables, which she starred as Eponine in for two years, and many of them are following her through the UK as she tours in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Without Carrie’s combined presence in both theatre and online, many of the young people may not be a invested in musical theatre as they are thanks to her. She’s not “just a YouTube star” though, she trained at Sylvia Young Theatre School and was cast in Les Mis before her channel grew to what it is today.
However, most recently there has been a lot of controversy over the casting of Sarah Harding (former member of noughties pop group Girls Aloud) as principal Molly in the musical ‘Ghost’, which is currently playing at the New Wimbledon Theatre, London, and is set to tour the UK. Many theatre-goers have been appalled by her performance (see the various tweets below) because of her lack of character definition/acting skills and inability to hit the notes required or sing in tune. As these reviews have been coming in over the course of a few nights, we can rule out that she may have just been having a ‘bad show’.
This begs the question as to whether the decision for her to be cast was because of the power her name would give to the show, with more people likely to buy tickets just because they knew “Sarah from Girls Aloud” was in it. This is of no fault to Sarah, so please do not criticise her as scathingly and personally as I have seen. I am sure she has worked very hard in the rehearsal process, and obviously has the belief she is right for the role because she has been chosen and probably been told by the team that she is perfect. Unfortunately, this show is just not hers to play.
This decision, therefore, leads me to the sad conclusion that many production companies are more set on making as much money as possible than a good show. It doesn’t matter how bad the set, the directorial choices, or even the principals are, as long as there are full houses and the (often extortionately priced) ticket money is in their back pockets, that’s all they care about. It honestly makes me feel so upset that people care more about money than art. Of course, I understand companies have to make money, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice a good-quality show because of it. Whatever happened to art for art’s sake?
The main reason many people, especially those in the industry itself, are tired of hearing about stunt and celebrity casting is that because of these castings, people who have trained for years at drama schools are pushed aside in favour of someone with a name and a few TV appearances. People train for hours and years on end, and drama school doesn’t come cheap. They hone and practice their craft, are extremely talented, and get pushed to the side in favour of a name. No wonder people feel it’s pointless to try and pursue their dream in the arts when it is much easier to get a job if you were merely a big name on a reality show.
So, production companies and casting directors. Please stop casting celebrities in shows to sell your tickets. Instead, pick the stars of tomorrow who undoubtedly have trained hard for this opportunity and have experience and talent which should sell a show way better than a “man-of-the-moment” name in lights.
I do hate it when celebrities are cast in musicals to ‘put bums on seats.’ I thought Diana Vickers and Ben Freeman were poor in Rocky Horror last year. Their understudies (who were musical theatre performers) were far stronger.