I recently had a discussion with a darling group of friends about doing things alone - cinema, eating out, gym, dance class. Of all the things which were contentiously argued, going to the theatre alone seemed, to my friends at least, to be the gravest of all the solo sins. But why?
I think of myself as a very sociable person able to get along with almost anyone and under any circumstance but there are rituals that I tend to prefer to carry out alone. I generally go shopping on my own, I enjoy long weekend walks on my own and I very often attend the theatre on my own. I guess ultimately I am just very comfortable and happy in my own company - I am my own best friend (Fosse hands). I ventured to suggest to my friends that if they felt uncomfortable going on solo missions to the theatre then it is quite possibly because they do not feel happy in their own company. It all got very Freudian in the end.
But then I started to reflect slightly. My bravado about going to the theatre on my own and being perfectly comfortable and happy in doing so started to actually come undone the more I analyzed my experiences. The more I thought about my behaviour once I arrive in the theatre, the more I realised that actually... I wasn't that comfortable. But was it because of how other people treated me? Or what my own expectations about the theatre experience were?
Here is a summary of my recent trip to see Sweet Bird of Youth playing at the Old Vic Theatre.
I promptly leave work and on the way out pop to the gents to sort my hair out - part of the attending theatre solo routine is to spruce myself up a bit. A bit like Dutch courage. Without alcohol. With narcissisim instead... let's call it Californian courage.
I arrive at Waterloo and swing by Sainsbury's to get myself a little pack of sushi so that I am not that really funny one whose stomach rumbles really loudly during one of the intensely quiet and dramatic scenes. I also take this opportunity to chug down a humungous can of energy drink as I do have a tendency to occasionally nod off after a hard day at the office! I wanted no fatigue to stop me appreciating Seth Numrich's form. Theatrical and physical!
Once I've committed sushi carbicide and infused my body with energy-altering chemicals, I amble towards to the Old Vic to see crowds of happy families, couples and friends and start to feel slightly like I need to put an act on. I have no idea where that instinct comes from but sure enough I grab my phone and start seriously engaging with it as if I'm impatiently waiting for a friend to join me. Furiously texting, shaking my head, rolling my eyes. I'm clocked by the usher on the door to whom I hand my (single) ticket saying confidently, 'My friend is joining me shortly but I thought it best if I go in and get the drinks in. Is that okay?' The usher, clearly knowing what is going on, smiles wearily and says, 'Of course.' HE KNOWS.
I head to the bar and order myself a large glass of white wine for some courage to navigate the busy foyers and to have further confidence to commit to my method acting. Inexpressibly I order two wines. One for me and one for my friend. Slash one for me and one for me. The bartender smiles wryly. HE KNOWS.
I am now carrying two large white wines through the foyer and begin an inexplicable act of 'scouting' for my friend. I am sure we have all done this before. The meerkat-esque searching through the crowd for that non-existent friend. There are occasions when this trick is gold, don't get me wrong. In fact, whenever I am at a large concert venue (such as Beyonce recently.. which again, I went to alone!), I buy two drinks and return to the standing area with them searching for my friends. I squeeze past people saying 'Sorry. I'm so sorry. Sorry, can I squeeze through? Cheers. Sorry! Oh god, I'm so sorry. Cheers. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Sorry.' Before you can say Beyonce's your best friend, I am front row within touching distance and nobody is any the wiser.
Where was I? Ah yes. The Laurence Olivier performance. So I make my way to my seat balancing the wine with my ticket, trying to find my row and my seat. Inevitably it was smack bang in the middle of a row and I'd left it until the 1 minute call to make my way in. Now I have 1067 people looking at me and I am convinced that every single one of them is thinking, 'Aw. Poor thing. Came on his own.' THEY KNOW.
The welcome mercy of the house lights dimming relieves the enormous pressure and I relax in the knowledge that I've got an hour to sit and enjoy the gorgeousness of Tennesee Williams. Bliss.
But oh no! That solitary and comforting hour sped by! Up come those darned lights and the judging eyes. I need to make a plan for the next 20 minutes. I gather my belongings and as I do so my neighbour, a rather gentle and pleasantly elder man pats my arm and says, 'Have you come on your own, dear?' The pity is palpable. Oh no. Here it comes again. Word vomit. 'No,' I reply. 'Actually, my friends... couldn't, erm, afford these kind of seats. So they're up there in Lilian Baylis.' It was like I'd rehearsed the whole thing several times before.. it came so naturally. And the kindly man knowingly patted me again and said, 'Oh well, that's alright then. Nothing worse than being on your own.' Excalibur through my stone heart - thank you, Arthur.
Due to crippling friendvy (friend envy!), I busy myself in the toilet pretending to be talking on the phone for the majority of the interval before my loitering in there looks rather suspicious so I make my way back through the joyous, happy crowds enjoying the company of their loved ones. I jovially continue to speak on my phone to my dearest friend Nobody, guffawing regularly, until the worst thing ever happens. Someone actually calls me. My phone starts to ring. Whilst I'm pretending to speak to somebody. It felt like the Furies of Virgil were attacking me, mocking me, humiliating me. I casually block the call. Because that's logical isn't it? Why would I answer to a real person and have a real conversation?
Fleeing the crowds, I sit back down in the auditorium and entertain my mature neighbour with stories of interval joy with my Lilian Baylis friends. Oh how we had a laugh up there in their bar. Hole. Deeper. Then that blessed blackout relief.
Once the play is over, I decide to make a swift exit to go and meet Kim Cattrall at stage door. I've been a huge fan since I was a younger man and now was my chance, probably once in a lifetime, to go and congratulate her for a fantastic performance and a very welcome return to the stage. I join the orderly queue outside the stage door where I am surrounded by groups of friends who have made the special outing. I'm second in the queue and it is really quite obvious that I'm tout seul. I have at this point resigned myself to being judged as a loner, a friendless gargoyle, a wandering wimp.
The happy couple in front of me engaged me conversation about the play until it suddenly clicked with them that I was on my own. It was amazing to see the penny drop in their faces. The handsome chap ventured to ask, 'Are you...... on your.... you know... own?' Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was sheer exhaustion from the best acting performance of my life. Maybe it was the excitement about meeting La Cattrall. But I simply said, 'Yes.' I braced myself for a shunning but was surprised to hear, 'Oh wow. That's great! Must be actually quite nice to come on your own sometimes.' Well shunt my fudge! The validation! The joy! The acceptance! Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, I am free at last!
We then had a good old chat together about the joys of doing things solo and they both admitted to occasionally going to the cinema on their own, having dinner alone and that now, they may even consider going to the theatre on their own. Win.
Following this divine endorsement, I then had the marvellous privilege of meeting Kim Cattrall who couldn't have been lovelier. I naturally lost all ability to speak and quite possibly just mumbled some nonsense which in my head sounded like, 'I thought you did a terrific job. Your characterisation was full of zeal, full of life and full of truth. Many congratulations and welcome back!' It in fact came out as 'Hi. You're good. Please can I have a picture?' DEAR LORD.
Of course the tricky thing about being on your own and meeting a star at stage door is that when it comes to getting a picture with them... who do you ask to take it? No-one! This is the age of the glorious selfie, dear hearts. I extended my arm, wrapped the other around Kim and wham! Done!
I bid adieu to my new found queue friends and skipped on my merry way home forgetting the whole exhausting experience from earlier.
So let's bring this back to basics. The horror of my friends at my going to the theatre alone - justified or not? Whilst the above may perhaps be slightly dramatic (come, readers, you know this about me by now!), it is a real experience. But it's actually probably one of the only experiences that has been so extreme - I do regularly go to the theatre on my own for work purposes, be they press nights or preview nights so I can get a feel for the shows I'll be working on. In those instances in which I'm working, there is none of the above whatsoever. I actually have a haughty air about me when I'm on official business waving the ATG flag. That's a whole DIFFERENT post. But it is interesting how different it feels when I'm going for personal pleasure.
But will it stop me from going alone in future? Absolutely not.
Once you get over the social expectation of attending theatre (that is to say that it is something you do with someone else) and realise that the theatrical experience, as Peter Brook suggests, is a communal, ritual experience. Once the stage lights are up, we are all the same. All there enjoying the same show and taking from it different experiences, opinions and lessons. It doesn't matter whether you are alone or with someone during the show.
So for the sake of enjoying that true, immersive theatrical experience, I will continue to happily sacrifice company to do so.