the kind of theatres we’re passionately committed to are in very, very serious danger at the momment….
(David Thacker, Bolton Octagon)
At a conference last Thursday at the National Theatre, the leaders of 22 English regional theatres described the transformational effect that a thriving theatre has had on their various cities and towns. A well co-ordinated media campaign around the conference ensured the story was front page news and across our tv channels (BBC story).
Throughout the day four clear and strong points were being made:-
First – regional theatre makes a difference – economically and to the social make up of urban centres . “What they provide is something else to believe in – argued Danny Boyle – and we must believe as well, otherwise we’ll lose it.. it’s something in our cities and towns that’s nurtured, that’s believed in, that isn’t Wetherspoon’s and Walkabout pubs and [professional footballers] Mario Balotelli and John Terry and people like that, something decent to believe in, something good and nourishing for us all really.” And losing it would – as Erica Whyman put it ‘“devastate the cultural landscape” of the city (in her case Newcastle).
Second – without modest and sustained investment this government will leave regional theatre in crisis and in so doing will impact massively on tomorrows economy and tomorrows talent pool. Where, Will Gompertz asked, will the next Danny Boyle come from? The cost now is negligible – the impact enormous
Thirdly – outside of London philanthropy is not the answer and the government is foolish to believe it ‘Eighty per cent of philanthropic giving to the arts benefits London’ argued Nicholas Hytner ‘and almost invariably private funding follows public funding. To pretend otherwise is to betray not only the theatres that have so risen so magnificently to the challenges of the last few years, but also the communities they serve’
Finally – despite claiming and celebrating the success of the opening and closing ceremonies of both Olympic games the new DCMS Minister Maria Miller has ‘outrageously snubbed’ (Danny Boyle) the sector(*). As Tom Morris argued ‘It seems to me that one tactic is to out David Cameron as an investor of public subsidy in the arts, because he is [with the Olympic opening ceremony]. He did it, it worked, he celebrated it.’
The day started with this Will Gompertz piece on the today programme. WG asked ‘but would the next Danny Boyle be able to repeat the feat in say twenty years time – some are beginning to doubt it because of an emerging financial crisis in regional theatre that is putting the whole system of talent development at risk.
Sheena Wrigley – Executive Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse was quoted as saying
‘Whats happening are shifts behind the scenes. There is just a lot of real talent around things like costume, set building, scenic design which is just simply not going to be there [if regional theatre is not supported] and that craft base is fueling much of our film industry and much of our larger commercial theatre industry’
The risk is this array of talent will be lost due to lack of opportunity. It’s an idea that echoed not only in the idea t of the Ghost Artist ( see here if you’ve not read it before in the context of the #ebacc debacle) but also Sam West’s speech to the TUC rally. ‘The Arts are a flourishing pyramid’ West said ‘cut funding to the smaller, regional organisations and sooner or later you starve the larger ones to death. Britain becomes a cultural desert’. Echoing that Daniel Evans – artistic director of Sheffield Theatres argued that the ‘rich and delicate biosphere of UK theatre was under threat’ by the current situation.
WG pointed out the imbalance between the investment in London and the regions – old news sure (see the launch of the Arts Index here) but always worth repeating. Alan Davey (CEO of Arts Council) is quoted as being worried by the regional imbalance but goes onto say that ‘funding the regions to thrive will be part of the next settlement when we know how much money we’ve got and that might mean some difficult decisions’
Danny Boyle (in his first public appearance since the celebrated opening of the Cultural olympiad)- issued a stark warning that the UK’s rich heritage of regional theatre, which heavily influenced his Olympics spectacular, is under threat reported Nick Clark in the Independent -. Boyle urged the Government to step in with the “modest but sustained” funding needed to save it, and issued a call for local communities to “believe in” their local playhouses.
The Stage’s Alistair Davis report was headlined ‘the very serious danger to our regional theatre’/. The Guardian chose to focus on Danny Boyle’s accusation that culture minister Maria Miller had delivered regional theatre an ‘outrageous’ snub – an accusation she would later respond to on twitter by saying ‘As Culture Sec i’ve met sector & discussed issues a lot & seen great performances – I’ve also done same w. Sport, Media, Equalities & Women!’. Charlotte Higgins (@chiggi) of the Guardian has asked for a list…and is threatening a FOI request if one is not forthcoming.
In a neat co-incidence (as the Telegraph reported based on a Readers Digest article ) Ian McKellan was also being quoted on fearing that todays young actors will never develop into ‘fine middle age performers’. His argument seems to be based on the demise of the now long gone rep company (an arguement reputed in this Telegraph piece by Dominic Cavendish here) but there are echoes of what Sheena Wrigley talked about on the Today programme – take away the opportunity and the potential will whither away and die..
Opinion pieces backed up the day. In his piece for The Guardian Nicholas Hytner argued that regional theatre is ‘a cornerstone of what somebody once called the “big society” and an agent of social and economic regeneration of once bleak town centres’ He went onto question why ‘the government would want to do further damage to a productive corner of the economy for the sake of tiny savings that would be vastly outweighed by the resultant losses’. You’ve heard this before but worth repeating here – 0.1% of the public purse is spent on the arts. the entire Arts Council budget is less than 17p per person per week – or to put it another way – 5% of the money lost to corporate tax evasion every year. Savings made by cutting the arts are TINY!
Tom Morris (creator of War Horse and artistic director of Bristol Old Vic) found himself – in the Independent – confused about how to make the case for funding to the government. Confused ‘because this is happening in the year it seemed the Government turned the corner in understanding investment in culture in a very, very big way….The opening and closing ceremonies and the Cultural Olympiad were seen as good for the country, good for the economy and good for defining the nation as enabled by its creativity…..But now we seem to be in the same old place of making the micro argument for the infrastructure that is entirely necessary for us to do another opening ceremony in 20 years time’
Michael Coveney for Whats On Stage summarised the meeting and concluded ‘None of this was hysterical or special pleading. It was the plain truth of the matter: that all of our lives are immeasurably enhanced and improved by state-subsidised theatres throughout the country which in turn contribute to the economy and perpetuate the not wholly ridiculous idea that our theatre – our actors and writers – are the best in the world.’
“The return that you get from (investment in the arts) is incalculable,” concluded Danny Boyle “Theatre sustains local communities and does very positive things for local economies. But it also gives a sense of belonging that can result in big expressions like the opening ceremony.”
SELECTED QUOTES FROM THE MEETING
“The network of regional theatres are extraordinary good value, doing extraordinarily good work. I hope that this morning will draw attention to what we risk losing if the very limited and very modest funding which they currently receive is reduced still further.” Nicholas Hytner
What [regional theatre] provides is something to believe in. And we must believe in it as well otherwise we’ll lose it… it’s something in our cities and towns that’s nurtured, that’s believed in, that isn’t Wetherspoon’s and Walkabout pubs and [professional footballers] Mario Balotelli and John Terry and people like that, something decent to believe in, something good and nourishing for us all really.” Danny Boyle
“What we’re talking about is that the kind of theatres we’re passionately committed to are in very, very serious danger at the moment and a small further cut could have a catastrophic effect.” David Thacker
‘Britain’s creative life “generates interest, brings people to this cool land of ours. People come and they bring people with them. So we mustn’t be defensive, we must grow it. You can grow and build good communities through the investment in the arts,” Danny Boyle
“A modest but sustained investment in the arts has had an incalculable effect on the country,” Danny Boyle
You can hear Eastern Angles artistic director Ivan Cutting respond to the debate on BBC Suffolk here (52 mins in)
(*) Maria Miller must be loving the DCMS brief at the moment. It wasn’t that long ago she was being bombarded with retweets of my former colleague Danielle Rose’s (and now freelance producer and part of the new music plus cohort for 2013) question “Dear @Maria_MillerMP, why do you not follow any artists, small to medium arts organisations, festivals, or human rights organisations?”. To be fair she’d only need to look at Danielle’s list (@_rosyd) as a starting point…