Stars of stage and screen

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Kevin Berry explains how a theatre is using computers to attract a new audience

Young people would rather party, get drunk or have sex than go to the theatre," Steven Berkoff once confided. And even though they do roll up in their hundreds to see him act and the plays he directs, his claim mostly holds true.

Take a look at almost any British theatre audience and it is overwhelmingly middle-class, middle-aged, white and loudly intellectual. It is also exclusive, visibly disapproving of anyone who does not fit the accepted pattern.

Young people might go on school theatre trips, but they daren't venture into a theatre at any other time. Theatres are a social minefield, shrouded in mystery and vague tradition. How do you book tickets? Where do you go? What do you do? Do you have to wear a tie? The cinema is far more customer-friendly.

But at least one theatre is making efforts to change all this. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, is reaching out to young people in a language they understand. Jude Kelly OBE, artistic head of the Playhouse, says theatre suffers from a "depressingly old-fashioned" image, and if it is to attract young people it must embrace new methods of communication. She welcomes information technology and has pushed on-line initiatives at the theatre, aiming, she says, to break down the barriers between audience and artists.

The Playhouse launched its own Website, one of the first in a theatre, in June. And it opened a cybercafe to coincide with a stage version of Iain Banks' cult novel The Wasp Factory.

But the theatre's latest IT venture, Interact '97, is a CD-Rom that aims to explain how the theatre works and encourage curiosity. And it's a first in the theatre world - not just another educational package but a fascinating, comprehensive resource that can be regularly updated.

At the moment the information is based on a recent production of Moli re's Don Juan. But as new productions are prepared new items can be downloaded from the Internet so students can track the play's development through the theatre's many departments. "It will be as up-to-date as the day," claims chief designer Ashley Clough.

Interact '97 is welcome news for teachers of theatre studies, English and performing arts. It will allow them to use technology with a sense of purpose, and do much to demystify theatre practice.

Karen Charlesworth, one of Interact '97's designers, says "This generation has a greater techno-logical awareness than we've ever seen. They are as familiar with screens, keyboards and the Internet as we were at that age with books. Giving them information in this way gives them a proprietorial view of the production. They will feel part of it and part of the theatre."

The package follows on from the success of The Wasp Factory cybercafe in the Playhouse's auditorium. Rows of computers were linked to the play's Website, and use was free before the show and for an hour afterwards.

The Website became a focal point in the theatre. Young people who wouldn't have bothered looking at a theatre programme were avidly using the site to find out more about the story and listen to interviews with the actors.

Mick Pool, resident Playhouse sound engineer and cybercafe enthusiast, explains how the Playhouse is aiming to attract the generation usually neglected by theatre chiefs. Advertisements in dance clubs and other haunts of the young have aimed to entice those who have never set foot inside a theatre. For The Wasp Factory, the choreographer and director even went to city-centre clubs, aiming to recruit dancers for one of the scenes.

"The Wasp Factory was marketed like a pop record," says Mr Pool. "The gratifying thing was that every night you would look at the audience and a large proportion would be people you had never seen before, people in for the first time."

Interact '97 has video interviews, a three-dimensional model of the theatre and a fully interactive production schedule.

The package illustrates the multiplicity of skills needed to stage a production but does not wander into the difficult area of drama studies. Definitely not a study of Moli re, more an investigation of how a theatre works, a springboard to fire up curiosity and enthusiasm.

The interviews include just about every member of the Playhouse staff. And they all have the freshness and fizz of experts talking about their work. They giggle, squirm and fluff their lines, and come across as ordinary, approachable people.

Interact '97 is available in October from West Yorks Playhouse, tel: 0113 213 7800. Price: Pounds 70, additional copies up to a maximum of five per educational establishment are Pounds 10 each. Playhouse Website: If you are not on the Internet, the updated information also comes on floppy disc

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