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Books still matter

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 OK for a quick fact such as Lawrence 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 50’s 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 here 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. 60 of them, from which the short list 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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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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