Theatres discuss funding drama

Some theatres are cutting back on actors and directors and staging fewer shows as cuts from the Arts Council England and local authorities bite.

As audiences also tighten their belts, three theatres have explained how the economic climate is being felt on stage, and what the future may hold.

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Marlene Marlene, telling the story of Marlene Dietrich, is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until September

"The pip has already squeaked," remarks Chris Monks, who replaced Alan Ayckbourn as artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2009, while discussing the theatre's efforts to make savings.

Eighteen months ago, he says, an Arts Council England consultant told him the venue was "lean and mean".

Then, like all of the Arts Council's other regularly funded organisations, its grant was cut by 7% for this financial year. North Yorkshire County Council slashed its subsidy by 84% and Scarborough Council trimmed 13%.

All in all, the theatre's income is £130,000 down on last year, Monks says.

"Production budgets have been cut really to the bone," he explains. "We are begging, borrowing and stealing everything we can.

"People are being resourceful - they are trying to find ways that they can save money and not reflect these cuts on the stage. What we don't want to do is cut the quality of what we put on."

Start Quote

We need to export our work in order to bring more revenue into the company”

End Quote Chris Monks Artistic director

The company has not replaced staff and has scrapped tours to rural communities in North Yorkshire, which Monks describes as "extremely hurtful".

"I'm sure it will mean fewer productions," Monks says of the funding situation. "I'm sure it will mean we will be able to employ fewer actors."

The theatre is also employing fewer directors, with Monks himself taking the helm for more shows. He is now rehearsing his version of Carmen, which will open on 28 July - his fourth production since April.

"You cannot keep that up," he says. "I am knackered."

Ayckbourn has returned to direct Dear Uncle, his adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya - which opened on Thursday - and his 75th original play, Neighbourhood Watch, which begins in September.

The company is looking for new sources of income and trying to build on tours to well-to-do areas like Guildford, Bath, Cambridge and Windsor.

Neighbourhood Watch will also visit New York. "It's costly taking a show to New York, but last time we made a substantial amount of money by doing it," Monks says.

"In my view, we need to export our work in order to bring more revenue into the company, and there is definitely a demand and an audience for that."

Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

Merlin - Dukes Lancaster This year's walkabout play is Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur

The Dukes has staged an annual outdoor walkabout play in the Edwardian Williamson Park every summer for the last 25 years.

But this year's production, Merlin and the Legend of King Arthur, which opened on Friday, will be the last - for the foreseeable future at least.

The company has lost around £100,000 of grants this year, according to Dukes director Joe Sumsion.

"It's the biggest show we do and attracts the biggest audiences, but it's also the most expensive thing we do," he says.

The decision to switch to static performances in a big top from next year was made "purely for financial reasons", he says. The walkabout shows need sound and lighting equipment in around six different locations in the park.

Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis was among the cast when the Dukes staged its first open-air play in 1987. Since then, the popularity of theatre al fresco has grown around the country, Sumsion believes.

"There's an irony that this company's been one of the leaders, I think, of that movement, but we can no longer afford to do it in the way that we've got good at," he says.

Start Quote

Dukes theatre director Joe Sumsion. Photo: George Coupe

There's a particular danger, which is different to that if a theatre in Manchester or Birmingham or London is challenged”

End Quote Joe Sumsion Theatre director

"I feel terrible about it. They are what we are recognised for. They attract audiences from literally all over the UK. People plan their holidays around these productions. So it's a very difficult decision to take."

The theatre has been through a period of upheaval since the Arts Council cut its grant by 50% in 2008.

The current financial squeeze will result in between three and four job losses from the nine-strong production department, he says, while the number of original productions will drop.

"The producing function, and the ability to create and make our own stories, I think, is essential," Sumsion says.

With a cinema, a small gallery and schemes for young people, the venue is "absolutely central to the cultural life" of Lancaster, he believes.

It is a situation, he says, which is mirrored in large towns and small cities across the UK.

"Often the arts organisations in [those places] are the only significant ones, or are a focal point for cultural activity.

"There's a particular danger, which is different to that if a theatre in Manchester or Birmingham or London is challenged. I'm not sure that's understood enough."

Theatre Royal, York

The Crucible at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Karl Andre The Crucible was the first play performed by the theatre's ensemble cast in May

This summer, York Theatre Royal has reverted to an old-fashioned rep company to stage eight plays.

So while the 12 actors are performing in one production by night, they are rehearsing the next by day. It is a more efficient use of their time.

While the decision to use the ensemble cast was not purely financial, it does make economic sense, according to chief executive Liz Wilson.

"We reduce the number of rehearsal weeks in which we don't earn [from the actors], and increase the amount of activity the actors do during the weeks in which they are earning," she says.

"It sounds very brutal but this is the truth of it. There is a basic business model to that."

The theatre has benefited from the success of its production of The Railway Children, which has moved to London and Toronto since opening in York in 2008.

Start Quote

We were very lucky to be in that situation compared with some of my colleagues”

End Quote Liz Wilson Chief executive

The royalty paid to the theatre from the subsequent stagings has been "a very welcome top-up," Wilson says.

"But it's nothing like as significant as the amount of money we need to raise here in York. It's icing on cake."

The theatre received the same 7% cut to its funding this year as have all Arts Council bodies, but did not get cut by the City of York Council.

"We were very lucky to be in that situation compared with some of my colleagues," she says.

But this year sees the end of a four-year funding agreement with the council, so she will begin negotiating a new settlement for next year.

Wilson is also anticipating challenges at the box office as audiences cut back on spending, especially when the full impact of public sector job cuts is felt.

"That's where I think we will see a much more significant drop in our overall income," Wilson believes.

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