Last week I attended the 2018 Theatre Book Prize award ceremony. From a shortlist of five titles, Nicholas Hytner won with Balancing Acts (published by Jonathan Cape) – and the ever-engaging Rory Kinnear was there to make the happy announcement.
It set me thinking about how books work in this industry. I’m a bookish person and it seems to me that books relating to theatre – as with any other industry, activity or subject – must be integral. They remain, surely, the ultimate source of detailed information and reflection. Google’s okay for a quick fact such as Laurence Olivier’s dates or to find out who runs the King’s Head Theatre but for in-depth stuff there is no substitute for a well-written book, whether you read it digitally or in hard copy.
And yet there seems – I’m afraid – to be dwindling interest. There weren’t, I’m sad to report, many under 50s there to applaud Nick Hytner, the runners-up and the judges last week for example. It was a well enough attended event but most attendees were, like me of… well, let’s just call it the book focused generation.
For years I tried to persuade The Stage to let me write a regular books column but there was never enough interest from readers to make it a goer. In the end, I did a books blog for them for a while but it didn’t last long because of the low number of hits. Now I do the occasional round-up of new titles on my own website but responses are pretty thin.
It’s a great pity because there are fabulous theatre books being published all the time. Sixty of them, from which shortlist of five was distilled, were submitted for the Theatre Book Prize – eclectic, beautiful, fascinating, quirky, academic, entertaining and informative in varying degrees.
I receive regular parcels of new performing arts books from excellent specialist publishers such as Nick Hern Books, Oberon, Methuen Drama, Aurora Metro, Routledge and the rest. And I do my best to publicise the most impressive titles. But it’s an uphill struggle.
The truth, I fear, is that theatre books don’t appeal very widely (although they are the backbone of drama school libraries, of course) unless they are biographies or autobiographies of A list actors that the public know and love.
Nick Hytner’s book is very compelling. How on earth do you make a monolith like the National Theatre work effectively and what does the Director actually do anyway? The book is full of insights, anecdotes and reflections and it’s very readable. I just hope that the publicity which this prize will help accrue to Balancing Acts will mean good sales. Like the other four titles on the shortlist – and the 55 which didn’t make the cut, many of which I have read – it deserves to be widely consumed by people both inside and outside the industry. Books have a place and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
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