I was in London this past week for one reason and one reason only: theater. I was there two years ago for a month studying Shakespeare at RADA, and it was about time to make a journey back over there to catch up. Over the course of the last week, I was able to catch: Floyd Collins at the Southwark Playhouse, Sweeney Todd with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, The Comedy of Errors at the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Woman in Black, Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, GHOST: the Musical, Matilda: the Musical, and Master Class starring Tyne Daly. I loved everything; I guess it means I have good judgment. Don't worry, I'm not doing reviews because I can't. I always sound pretentious, and I tend to overcomplicate things. Instead, I'd like to note a few key differences between American theater and London theater.
1) In London, theater is something everyone does. No questions. It's just a part of life. Instead of going to the cinema, you can go see a play, sometimes for less. It's just such an interesting contrast to our "elitist club" of commercial theater. Of course, the West End is very similar to Broadway in that respect, but there's something about the fact that plays like The Pitmen Painters and The Madness of George III can run just as long on the West End as Legally Blonde or any other recognizable commodity. You know why, because great theater is a recognizable commodity. Transport workers in the Tube would comment on people's programs, offering their opinions of the shows because they had seen them, and the front desk manager at our hostel in Stratford-Upon-Avon was jealous that we had £5 tickets to The Comedy of Errors at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It's something that everyone does, and it's part of life.
2) Actors are just... actors. If you look at any West End program and at the biographies of the cast members, there are equal amounts of film/TV/theater and everyone has done Shakespeare. Of course, there are episodes of "stunt casting" with celebrities, but even those celebrities that come into shows can keep up with the rest of them because just two years ago they were playing the stage in some other great role. There is very little distinction between a film actor and a stage actor; they've all trained in the same way and they are able to work in all mediums... and do well! Talking to a British friend of mine, she mentioned that the celebrity mentality is very different and the majority (not all) are famous because of what they can do rather than who they are. That being said, when I was at the stage door to meet Tyne Daly after I saw her groundbreaking and relentless portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class, there were three other people waiting to see her. West End audiences, in my experience, aren't interested in the off-stage lives of their actors. It's on stage and then it's gone.
3) There's ice cream sold at every interval. That's a really nice thing.
4) Programs cost between £3-£7, and they're more like souvenir programs that we would get on Broadway rather than playbills. It's a very nice conservation of paper, and you don't end up with millions of extra playbills.
5) Tickets are reasonably priced. Kevin Spacey was just interviewed in an article for BBC News where he says that, as Artistic Director of the Old Vic, it's his job to keep theater from becoming the elitist club that it is by subsidizing ticket prices and making sure that it's accessible to everyone. This goes back to my first point, theater (and art) is part of daily life. I think we can learn a little something from that.