Entertainment & Arts

Are regional theatres at risk?

Lighthearted Intercourse at Bolton Octagon
Image caption The play Lighthearted Intercourse is currently at the Bolton Octagon

Earlier this month, the National Theatre's artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner warned that regional theatres in the UK would face "clear and present danger" if hit with more funding cuts. Is he right?

On Sunday, the Theatre Awards UK honoured the cream of regional theatre, with nominees picked from all corners of the country, from the Belfast Lyric to the Hull Truck, the Chichester Festival Theatre to the Dundee Rep.

"What the award nominations show is actually strength in depth across the UK at the moment," says Julian Bird, chief executive of the Theatrical Management Association (TMA), which handed out the awards.

"It's great to see a list of nominees that is very broadly spread in all parts of the UK. That's what's exciting - but that's what's at risk."

While regional theatre may currently be in good health, Sir Nicholas' caution at the start of October was that further cuts would be "madness" because subsidised venues outside London had "enormous short-term issues".

He said regional theatres faced a "double whammy" - from central government, which has trimmed arts funding and which is feared to be preparing more cuts; and from local councils, many of which are also having to find further savings.

The Arts Councils and local authorities have been tightening their belts for a couple of years.

But, as far as most theatregoers are concerned, little has changed on stage. Neither the numbers of shows nor the quality of them has dropped dramatically.

A theatre's funding is like "a very finely balanced deck of cards", says Roddy Gauld, chief executive of the Octagon theatre in Bolton, a respected production house.

"The stability of funding gives you that bottom row of the deck on which you're able to balance everything else. If you lose some of the cards at the bottom, the other ones start to wobble."

The Octagon received a small real-terms cut in the last Arts Council England settlement in 2011 and the local council has kept its funding level - so far, at least.

But the theatre's sponsors have cut back and audience members are now less willing to shell out for a programme or after-show drink, Gauld says.

"We're losing that cumulative income faster than we're able to replace it at the moment. That's the wobbly point."

The venue has worked to increase ticket sales, cut internal costs and attract philanthropy. The theatre must get better at seeking philanthropy but costs cannot be cut much more without having an impact on what is seen on stage, Gauld says.

"The jeopardy is that if we start to affect the quality of our work and we don't live up to audience expectations, then people will stop wanting to buy tickets," he says. "That's the real tipping point and we're getting closer and closer to that point."

Theatres are desperate to make the case for the difference they make to their towns.

Image caption Pilot Theatre's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner has received glowing reviews on its UK tour

Gauld says the Octagon brings £7.5m to the local economy, attracts nightlife to a struggling town centre and works with thousands of people with mental health problems, young offenders and other marginalised groups.

And then there is their role in nurturing new creative talent. Maxine Peake, Alison Steadman and Robert Powell started their careers at the Octagon, while big names from Sir Ian McKellen to Stephen Daldry cut their teeth elsewhere on the regional circuit.

Daldry was executive producer of the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, the success of which is being held up as evidence that investment in the arts is not wasted.

But those arguments are a tough sell when nurses and police officers are losing their jobs and care homes and children's centres are being closed.

"Councils know residents cherish their local theatres and galleries and appreciate the key role art plays in giving a community its sense of culture and heritage," says a spokesman for the Local Government Association, which represents councils.

"However, councils are having to bear the brunt of public sector cuts with government slashing their funding by 28%.

"Once statutory duties such as adult social care, child protection, collecting bins and filling potholes have been covered, many town halls have little option but to reduce what they used to spend on discretionary areas such as the arts."

Theatre companies cannot afford to be complacent, says Marcus Romer, artistic director of the Pilot Theatre Company in York. "Do I think cuts are going to happen? Yes I do. Do I think there are going to be some casualties? Yes there will.

"How can we mitigate against that? By having conversations and working together and being more effective and strategic and a little bit more entrepreneurial in how we make and share work."

Theatres must collaborate and take their plays on tour to help cover the costs of staging them, he says. And positive things can come out of adversity when cuts focus the mind on how an organisation can do better, Romer believes.

Barbara Matthews, the Arts Council England's director of theatre, cites Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex as one example of a venue that has made the most of its resources.

A string of its productions including Singing in the Rain, David Hare's South Downs and a stage version of Yes Prime Minister have all transferred to the West End.

'Spiral of mediocrity'

"They are fantastic at making sure that when they have a hit show, they can prolong its life and increase its audience and therefore increase the earnings back to them," Matthews says. "That's real entrepreneurial skill."

While times for theatres are undoubtedly tough, Matthews believes there "isn't a crisis yet".

"The '80s and '90s did terrible things to the network of producing theatres across this country, and in the last 10 years there's been an extraordinary revitalisation of ambition and range and variety of work," she says.

"I've just been looking at the figures and, while public funding is going down, there are a lot of examples of theatres who are still managing to maintain or increase their turnover by working incredibly hard."

Her message to theatres is not to compromise their artistic integrity simply to get bums on seats, despite that wobbling house of cards.

"The minute things get so tough that they start to play safe, actually you end up in a desperate spiral of mediocrity."

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