When Americans come to the UK, they are often shocked at the far more relaxed attitudes towards drinking here. (I will forever be known to some at my daughter’s school as the woman who was dumbfounded at being offered a glass of Proseco at the first parent’s night I attended. Reader, the answer to your next question is: Of course. I had two.)
This casualness extends to lots of places where, as an American, you are shocked to find drinks and/or a bar. Like children’s events. Like theatres.
Most every theatre I attend in London has a bar, and I don’t mean a place where cheap champagne is offered in plastic cups on folding tables on opening night OR an overpriced bar-like structure that sells $10 glasses of wine and $15 martinis that you need to suck down at intermission because GOD FORBID YOU SHOULD TAKE A BEVERAGE INTO A PLACE AS SACROSANCT AS A THEATRE! (I’m going to blow your mind now at the convention of ice cream being sold INSIDE THE THEATRE at the interval here. You can buy it in the theatre, and you can eat it in the theatre, even sitting comfortably in your own seat. Ah, the humanity!)
Theatres here have REAL bars, with full drink, beer and wine offerings, sometimes cask ales, always bar snacks and generally even light meals. These bars also include a full compliment of coffee and tea drinks like you’d find in any coffee shop. They are gathering places (that often feature free wifi) and are open well before and after the show. These bars are destinations in their own right.
At The Southwark Playhouse, for example, the bar/cafe is open 9 a.m.-midnight weekdays and 1 p.m.-midnight on Saturdays. At the Hampstead Theatre, their bar’s hours are similar, and you can book a table.
At first glance, you might think: Who cares? So you can get a real drink and some food AT the theatre instead of a slice or a beer at the bar across the street? Big deal.
Honestly though, I think it’s a major deal. The integration of a bar. . . ok, let’s say cafe. . . reinvents the idea of what kind of gathering goes on at a theatre. Rather than just a place where you line up to enter, sit quietly and laugh or cry or judge and file out to talk about how you could have done it better with your friends, the theatre becomes a place where you can actually hang out without the start and finish time of a play dictating your experience.
When you need to meet a friend to chat or a colleague to conduct business informally, where do you go? A coffee shop, a bar, a cafe, right? Why can’t the theatre be on that list too? Don’t forget that this enhanced sense of welcome and expansiveness of the meaning and function of a theatre’s physical space extends to the auditorium as well. You can have a beer while watching the show. You can have a ice cream. You are invited to be comfortable. The theatre here is another kind of public space that invites comfort and reflection and communication, both like a park (offering comfort and reflection) and like a bar (inviting communication.)
When I have time to kill in central London, I often find myself hanging out at the National Theatre. There’s free wi-fi, a fantastic bookshop, loads of food options, fascinating people watching and amazing theatre in the air. I see lots of plays at the National too, and I’ve attended many discussions and tours and exhibits there. The National’s openness makes me feel a part of this massive institution in a way that just buying tickets definitely does not.
I’ve been to the theatre in the U.S. many times where I couldn’t be ushered out of the theatre fast enough, and for goodness sake, don’t go early! Sometimes there aren’t more than 1-2 seats in the lobby! I know there are exceptions (and I’m certainly generalizing here to make a point,) but in the U.S., the show starts when the house opens and ends at curtain call. Show’s over, folks. Nothing happening here until 7:30 tomorrow night.
The flip in my experience in London is that the theatre doesn’t want you to leave, and it would very much like you to come early–yes, to buy drinks–but more importantly to enrich your experience, because you are welcome, like you are part of the ensemble, not just a member of a monolithic audience.
Years ago, I went to a fantastic PR workshop that focused on where to start when promoting a show. The first question was: Who is your competition? Everyone answered with other theatres and arts events. The real answer though is: just staying in and watching Netflix. You’ve got to convince people to leave the house in the first place. Sports teams are good at this: even if the game sucks, you can have a beer and a chat with friends.
It’s time theatres realized that the play isn’t the only thing and built welcoming homes, instead of monuments to be worshipped at appointed hours.