Theatre audiences are a poor show

Peter Ackroyd, in his masterful biography of London, animadverts that the entire city is essentially a performance space, one in which the notorious actors fret and strut, while the London mob roils and moils through the streets, providing at once the extras and the audience for an organic production that is ever evolving down the ages. But if this is the case - and I think his analysis has considerable appeal - then what can we say of the audiences in more conventional theatres?

For me, the theatre audience is the main problem with theatre. Sure, a lot of plays are flatly crap, but only the audience for an averagely farcical West End production will force me to leave at the interval, disgustedly shredding my programme.Actors are, as we all know, a pretty mad crowd - but at least there are small chinks in the seriousness with which they take their avocation. Audiences, by contrast, are slaves of a high-minded method to rival Stanislavsky's. Watching them mill about in the lobbies and bars, talking arse while they scoop ice creams and sup G&Ts, it often occurs to me that when all these individuals got up that morning, they were already resolutely in character as middle-class members of a theatre audience.

Titter ye not

If the proletarian mob galvanised political change with its posturing on the barricades, then the theatre audience is its bourgeois counterpart, which, merely by sitting still, extinguishes the revolutionary fire with a well-fed collective derrière. This wasn't always the case. Back in the days when the Globe wasn't a laborious fake, the theatre was indeed coextensive with the street theatre - through the Restoration and up until the heyday of Drury Lane, a trip to the theatre remained a vital part of playing a dynamic social role. But since the Victorian era, the main motivation of the professionals playing the audience has been complacency, pure and simple.

Agitprop, guerrilla theatre, the theatre of the absurd, theatre in the round, the square, the open-fucking-air - so moribund is the British theatre audience that nothing has managed to make it corpse; it remains steely, impervious to distraction. Indeed, arguably the more outrageous the play, the more naked and bemerded the cast, and the more it assaults the audience's cherished ideals, the more content that audience becomes. As the actors on stage prance about waggling their genitals and lobbing handfuls of excrement, so those in the royal circle titter indulgently and
rustle their programmes, for it is by this fact alone - their incapacity to be genuinely shocked - that they can also remain manifestly unmoved.

Keeping up appearances

I appreciate that they often claim to have been transported by this Enron or that Jerusalem. "Oh, it was marvellous," they bleat. "It really made you think." And perhaps it did make them think . . . of booking another ticket so as to have another opportunity to play their own favourite part. True, in recent years, the sluggish audience, like some ageing matinee idol, has attempted some new tricks. During the boom years, infused by more than the usual planeloads of Americans and invigorated by new money, the audience began to applaud spontaneously at the end of acts - and even scenes!

There was also a precipitate increase in the amount of hilarity. Heretofore laughter was frequent and disproportionate, yet almost always had a sufficient cause; now the tittering is continuous from when the curtain rises until it descends. The audience will guffaw at just about anything from Tybalt's death to Krapp's penultimate tape - and how mad is that? But the maddest thing of all remains the audience's inability just to walk away from it. After all, when the play is over, the Equity-minimum actors reach for the baby wipes and annihilate their subterfuge, but the paying audience simply heads out the double doors while stalwartly maintaining it.

It maintains it in cars, it maintains it on public transport - but, by far the most aggressively, it maintains it in restaurants and bars, where it feels liberated to loudly ad-lib lines of staggering banality, such as: "I'll have the calves' liver." While the deranged mob may have been repressed, there remains this other craziness: being compelled against your will to be the audience of an audience.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.