Entertainment & Arts

British theatre: Making drama out of a crisis

The UK Theatre Awards, which were handed out on Sunday, proved that top-class theatre can be found across the UK, despite warnings about the consequences of funding cuts.

So is regional theatre in rude health or in crisis? Here, figures from the stage community assess the state of British theatre and look to the future.

Daniel Evans, Sheffield Theatres artistic director

Image caption Daniel Evans has directed shows including the award-winning This Is My Family

Sheffield Theatres led the winners at the UK Theatre Awards, with four prizes. The complex, which comprises three auditoria, was named the best theatre outside London by The Stage newspaper earlier this year.

What is the mood in British theatre - doom and gloom or celebration?

I'd be lying if I didn't say there was a measure of doom and gloom because we're all facing more and more cuts. However at the same time it's really important that we do celebrate the vibrancy, and that actually we're in rude health.

What is your biggest challenge?

Cuts. We pride ourselves on being an integral part [of the city]. We have a loyal audience and we want to keep putting on challenging, provoking stuff, as well as entertaining stuff. If we continue to get cut more and more then inevitably something has to give.

Have cuts had any impact on what gets on stage?

Of course. We have to look at how many new plays we can do a year. What are the risky plays we can do in the year? We want to continue doing experimental work - but at the same time we have to look at how we programme the larger spaces.

Erica Whyman, Royal Shakespeare Company deputy artistic director

Erica Whyman won a UK Theatre Award for best children's show for The Borrowers, her last show as artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle before moving to the RSC.

Sum up the health of British theatre.

British theatre is in a pretty healthy state, particularly artistically. Austere times can sometimes put a fire in one's belly and I think that's happened. There are some great new voices coming through. And there's a political bite to some of our work. At the same time, it's been a very tough year.

What is the biggest challenge facing UK theatres?

There is the economic challenge, both for audiences and theatres. The other challenge is that audiences' lives have changed. The award for The Borrowers is lovely because [we must] reach young people and make sure they have a passion for live theatre in a world where they're surrounded by screens.

Give me the name of me one to watch - a talent you are excited about.

Chris Thorpe is a writer, a director and a performer, and I think in some interesting way he's the future. He moves between those roles and he's writing very provocative and daring work.

A collaborator of Chris's is Lucy Ellinson. She is also a performer, devising work, campaigning politically and she's also the future. There's a generation who don't see these hierarchical roles as any kind of barrier. They just make the work they want to make and they're intent on finding a new, really engaged audience.

Paul Kerryson, artistic director of the Curve Theatre, Leicester

What is your biggest challenge?

It's a big theatre and it's quite expensive to run so it's keeping the ability to take risks. Even a musical last year that [we thought] was a sure-fire hit suddenly wasn't, so you've got to keep your head above the water and be very clever with your programming.

Was that Finding Neverland?

No. I thought that was the risk. But the producer Harvey Weinstein helped us sell that well. Our Christmas show [Hello, Dolly!], which we thought would do well, didn't do as well.

What do you learn from that?

This Christmas we're doing Chicago and we're back on track. Clearly the public want sexy and new but familiar titles. Not old titles. If I did Oklahoma! we'd be empty. If they don't come this year, we will be in trouble.

Tell me one to watch.

A choreographer - Drew McOnie. He announced his own company last week, so he's following Matthew Bourne's footsteps. We're going to premiere his new dance piece called Drunk in the spring.

Greg Hersov, joint artistic director of the Manchester Royal Exchange

What has gone down well at the Royal Exchange this year?

What has struck a chord, which is encouraging, is serious plays that are very warm and passionate. Plays like Accrington Pals, To Kill A Mockingbird and All My Sons have really connected with our audiences. People seem to want warm, robust, humanistic dramas.

Have funding cuts made any difference to your shows?

No, we're absolutely determined not to let that happen. Obviously any theatre like ours depends a bit on how box office income is generated. So if we find that we can't quite generate enough box office income it will probably affect your programme choices at some point, but our attitude is always to make the most exciting, vivid work.

Tell me one to watch.

A director named Max Webster, who we found through the regional theatre directors' scheme. We offered him To Kill A Mockingbird, which he did a really good production of, and he's returning to our theatre to do Orlando with Suranne Jones.

Rachel Tackley, president of the Theatrical Management Association and director of English Touring Theatre

How would you sum up the health of theatre?

It's pretty healthy, regional theatre. The glory of it is that it's healthy despite the fact we're under enormous pressure from local authority funding as well as central government etc. Everyone's redoubled their efforts and is working so hard. It's healthier than you would expect.

What's the best thing you've seen this year?

Blanche McIntyre just won the best director's award and we're working with her at ETT next year. I went to see her The Seagull in Derby on a Saturday night and took my 14-year-old daughter and it was amazing. Absolutely glorious in every way. That's regional theatre at its best.

What has gone down well this year?

Lots of people have done lots of comedy. There's a real sense of, 'People don't want to be challenged too much in these austere times so let's put on something light and frothy'.

Maybe we might look at it as the year of - I don't want to say froth - but a light-hearted, light-touch approach. People have steered clear - I find myself tempted to do the same - of anything too depressing.

Lorne Campbell, Northern Stage artistic director

Have you noticed any trends in theatre this year?

I think there's a considerable growth in ambition and willingness to risk-take on major stages outside London. Regional theatres across the board have started to take more risk with a greater sense of localism in their larger spaces.

What's your biggest challenge?

As the resources grow tighter, it's very easy to do fewer things better, which then don't cover the year, or do more things worse. We're trying to hold the [quality] level that we demand of our own work, but also keep the theatre alive and thrumming during the course of the year.

Tell me one to watch

I'm very excited by David Ireland, a writer. He's ready to write some very big plays. Cora Bissett, a director, has started stepping up to bigger stages. Her work is so human, joyful, popular and profoundly political.

Sally Anne Tye, executive director of touring company New Perspectives

What state is regional theatre in?

I think there is and always has been a great deal of dynamism in the regions. We work a lot with new writing and presenting new stories in different ways to challenge audiences, particularly in rural settings. Now more than ever there's a need for making theatre accessible to as wide a group of people as possible outside urban conurbations.


We've been in recession and people are making choices, particularly with disposable income, and if we can take work to people in walking distance of where they live and involve wider communities then that strips one of the barriers to entry.

What's your biggest challenge?

We're funding a collaborative PhD with the University of Nottingham, where we're looking at challenging new forms of theatre for rural audiences. Rather than just touring safe work to rural locations we're looking at really how we can challenge and stretch audiences and not just play safe.

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