Safe standing

Image of the Pirelli Stadium, Burton Albion, looking across to their safe standing areas

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an Immersive Theatre performance. Its quite different from traditional forms of theatre. In traditional theatre the division between the audience and the stage is clearly defined, whereas in immersive performances the action takes place around the audience and you are often able to walk through different spaces that feel like the actual rooms in the action (effectively being immersed in the middle of the action). Something that often characterises an Immersive performance is that the audience walks around… and stands.

I recently did a survey about safe standing at football grounds. I understand entirely why the Taylor report, after Hillsborough, recommended all seater stadia and I can also see how, in many ways the spectator experience is enhanced if you have your own numbered seat, but I also think the time has come for the government to explore safe standing in football grounds.

My view of standing has undoubtably been coloured by my experiences of going to Upton Park in the early eighties. I started by standing in the North Bank, briefly tried the South Bank and then finished by standing in the West Bank. These were formative experiences. Often I couldn’t see much. I would be buffeted about when the crowd moved. Sometimes I got soaked by pints of beer being chucked in the air when there was a goal. But, it was brilliant. Exciting. Immersive. You were in the middle of things. You were part of the crowd; part of the action. When the crowd moved, you moved. When they sang, you joined in. Together, you were as one. It made that intangible, but much sought after, thing called ‘atmosphere’ something special

I know those days are gone and it’s interesting, to me, to compare my first experiences of ‘live’ football with that of my kids. They say how amazing the London Stadium is. I have taken them to a number of crumbling lower league grounds, with poor toilets and limited refreshments, but where you are so close to the players you can almost touch them. I nostalgicly enjoy these grounds, but they much prefer the London Stadium. Its comfortable, it’s impressive and its safe. There has been crowd trouble at the London Stadium, but even when things were kicking off against Burnley, we felt safe. If I thought it wasnt safe, I wouldn’t take them. However, I remember a match in the early 80s at Upton Park, when West Ham fans ran across the corner of the pitch to attack the away fans (Newcastle, I think) in their caged enclave on the South Bank. I was also once punched in the face by a Derby fan, when leaving the Baseball ground. Being an away fan was dangerous and you were treated a bit like a dangerous beast (It wasn’t fun being frog marched from the station by the police). I’m glad it is no longer like that. Its not much to ask to feel physically safe whilst you’re at a football match, is it?

Of course, you are allowed to feel angry, frustrated, let down, etc whilst at a game and to shout rude and even agressive things at the other fans. I sometimes enjoy the banter of the other fans, when they abuse us. We accept their derision, its the same we offer them, but after the game, I also enjoy speaking to and getting the perspective of an opposing fan. And, even when things go horribly wrong, and you lose 3-0 at home to Burnley, at least you have the satisfaction of saying to others “I know. I was there!” A bit of me even feels sorry for fans that have never seen their team relegated. I watch football for both the euphoria and the despair (maybe I haven’t had much choice about this, thanks to supporting the team I do). I think you know more about what it means to win, if you have experienced defeat. Watching football is an emotional experience.

Theatre makers know a thing or two about emotion too. Since the time of Aristotle, emotion has been associated with the theatre experience (catharsis). Other practitioners have sought to minimise the emotional impact and to emphasise rational thought. Brecht was concerned with the using the theatre to explore political ideas and following him was Brazilian practitioner, Augusto Boal. If you were asked to name some famous Brazilians, you might say Pele or Neymar. I would say Boal.

Any theatre maker knows that the essence of the art form is the ‘live’ experience. By chosing theatre as your art form, you are making a conscious decision to share your work in front of a ‘live’ audience. As such, it becomes an interaction or a dialogue. It also ensures that the show is constantly evolving and changing, the more it is performed. Every audience is different and hence every performance is different too. Each new audience will listen with a different intensity and respond in a different rhythm.

Boal was particularly interested in the dialogue between actor and spectator. He, like Brecht, was interested in politics, although his theatre presents problems and asks the audience to come up with solutions, rather than telling them what to think. It also has a particular and unique process. It starts with a performance that is shown to an audience, in which the main characters make mistakes. This piece is then replayed, but on this occasion the spectator can propose their own solutions by replacing an actor on stage and showing a different way of behaving (becoming neither spectator nor actor, but a hybrid spect-actor).

I have used this technique on loads of occasions and by doing so understand something about the difference between a passive and active audience. A theatre auditorium carries with it an expected set of behaviours. Over many years we have established that in the theatre you sit quietly until the end, when you clap. In order to change those expectations, and establish a new set of behaviours, you have to shift the audience out of their ‘rooted’ comfort zone. Therefore between the first (passive) performance and the second (active) performance you need to warm the audience up. I do this by getting them to wave their arms in the air, shout things out and stand up. In many ways I ask them to behave a little more like football fans.

Boal’s ideas, about empowering the spectator can only go ‘So far’ when it comes to football. I don’t imagine the referee stopping the match when someone in Row C complains about the striker who missed an open goal, and asks them to replace the striker to show how they would do it. I am not seeking a consensual football supporter. A crowd should have many different voices despite the sense of unity (although I have felt ashamed in the past when fascist idiots have been allowed to shout their garbage. Thankfully those days are gone). I guess the closest we get to the idea of a disaffected supporter replacing the ineffective striker is the kick around in the park after the game or the chance to right the wrongs on FIFA.

Even though a crowd is made up of individuals though, we do still act together. I think it is both a positive and negative aspect of human nature. It can be hard to stand out from the crowd and shout “Stop. This is wrong!” as we know only too well from the rise of fascism in Germany in the 40s. However there is something within us all that wants to be tribal; that’s wants us to be part of something; a gang or squad. Football Can give us that in a safe and understood way. Even I, as a liberal, ‘right-on’ lecturer have sung some of the less than PC songs (albeit with a strong dose of irony) at the top of my voice. I like to, sometimes, be simply part of a mass of West Ham fans.

Part of the common identity of fans is the singing. Songs are a verbal way of claiming our identity. National, sectarian and political identity is reflected as much now, through song, as ever. At West Ham we have somehow chosen an old musical number from 100 years ago, to use as our anthem. When Kendis, Brockman and Vincent first wrote their lyrics about the “pretty bubbles in the air” I bet they never imagined it could mean so much to so many people – a song of regret, stoicism and hope.

When we sing, we also stand. Our physiology dictates this. If I were to wear my Performance lecturer hat, I would point out that to project your voices out into the vastness of a stadium, you need to use your diaphragm and this is more difficult to do when you are sitting. When you stand you can breathe properly and make a better sound. Perhaps there’s a sideline for me here – voice classes for football fans!? It would be a variation of Boal’s audience warm ups. There is serious point here, though too, and that is, to create atmosphere you need a crowd that sings and to sing properly you need to stand

I talked before about expressing euphoria and despair and in a football ground there is an acceptance that fans will express these emotions. Unlike the quiet theatre auditorium (in the theatre it’s the actors that do this), in a football crowd there is an expectation that you will express / demonstrate (even perform) your feelings. Where else do we jump up and scream when something good happens? I remember my daughter and her friend almost jumping out of their skins, when I suddenly screamed and jumped around the kitchen, after Payet had scored aginst Man U in the cup. To them, my behaviour seemed out of keeping with the situation and the location. They hadn’t noticed that I was watching the TV in the corner. In football grounds, though, there is no surprise to see people jumping up to remonstrate with the assistant referee (I remember almost fainting once when I jumped up and yelled, in one movement, and all the blood drained from my head). Even if you give fans a seat and then enforce the ground regulations for no standing, there will be an acceptance that at certain moments everyone will stand up. Emotion is something we express with our bodies.

However, in contemporary grounds this can be dangerous. The act of jumping to your feet, as I suggested, can result in light headedness, but also make you feel very unbalanced. My sister was quite badly hurt when at a rugby world cup match, the large bloke sitting behind her jumped up at a try, tumbled forward and pinnioned her to the floor. Stadia seats are placed at a height that means the back of the seat in front is at knee height and dangerous to anyone losing their balance. Safe standing areas, though, contain crash barriers that prevent this imbalance.

Safe standing areas can also be strategically positioned in a ground. The traditional place for the most vociferous supporters is behind a goal (e.g. the Kop, the old clock end, the North bank). In theory it helps the attacking side to play towards their fans in the second half and be roared on. It is widely accepted that it is an advantage to play at home and be roared on by the majority of the stadium. It can, of course, also work against you if the crowd are on your backs and we have certainly seen the effect of that at the London Stadium (e.g. the Burnley game). The problems with the new stadium are various, but the perceived lack of atmosphere can in part it can be attributed to a dispersal of the singing clusters of fans and the attempts to make fans sit down (understandable, as the rke of the seats is so shallow). It has certainly meant that, for away teams, playing at West Ham is less intimidating than in the old days of the Upton Park cauldron. If you go to a West Ham away game the atmosphere is often better. There’s less insistence on sitting and all the singers are closer together. In most Premier League matches now, it is the away fans that sing more. Soon, if the away fans are quiet, we will start to turn that song on its head and sing to them “You’re supposed to be away!”.

However, it goes without saying, that home teams still want to maintain the advantage they had. Anything the club can do to create an environment that favours the home team is in their interests. Its also in the interests of the Premier League to generate atmosphere in stadia. It is part of the USP and something that helps to sell the ‘brand’ throughout the world. It is widely accepted that the best atmosphere is now found in the Bundesliga, in grounds that have safe standing. Oh, and also, safe standing takes up less room and so you can fit more supporters in the ground, which is even better news for club finances.

So, as far as I can see, the argument for safe standing is compelling. It facilitates a more engaged and emotional experience, it helps people sing and so creates atmosphere, it can enhance the Premier League brand, it allows for more bodies through the turnstile and it is what the customer wants. It is in the interests of the clubs and the Premier League to enhance the ‘live’ experience. English football is distinct, not because the quality of the football is better than anywhere else (we have all watched the other main European leagues on the TV), but because of its history, the competitive nature of the competition and importantly the atmosphere. It is these things that sells the broadcasting rights and the ‘brand’ around the world. Therefore these things need to be carefully protected.

The ‘live’ experience (in the theatre or in football) is something to be considered and developed. Many theatre makers are interested in disrupting the safe and distanced positioning of the audience; to make them more involved and immersed in the action. It is a way of emphasising the ‘liveness’ of a theatre experience, as opposed to watching the TV or going to a cinema. Similarly football needs to appreciate and enhance the difference between the ‘live’ / in stadium experience and that of watching at home. A ‘live’ football experience should be engaging, emotional and immersive. We don’t need to get the fans to walk on the pitch to do this, but we do need to support ways of enhancing the ingredients that make for a great atmosphere. If a fan wants to stand, let them, but do it in a safe standing area.

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