Near the top of Alan Davey’s Arts Council England worry list is local authority arts funding, particularly for theatre. It’s probably third after next year’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the reshaping of ACE’s own administration to half of what it was at the start of this year, at the government’s behest.
He knows that without council support, reduced ACE subsidy, trembling box office and sponsorship/philanthropy not firing, the next few years are going to be bleak for regional theatre. He is as worried as Michael Boyd, recently departed boss of the RSC, that the talent brought out by the 25% boost in public funding for theatre in England a decade ago, talent that is now at its peak, will not be repeated and the likes of Rupert Gould, Tim Crouch and Nancy Meckler – to pick at random from many – will be the last of a glittering generation.
So what Alan Davey and his beleaguered arts council operation is going to have to do is work closely with local authorities (not always a comfortable relationship in the past)
He needs to look at what is happening in Norwich. That wise old bird Peter Wilson, both a West End producer and for 20 years CEO of the city’s Theatre Royal, has knitted together a deal involving two local authorities, the regional theatres around the country – and his audiences.
Wilson gets nothing from Arts Council England, but a grant from the county council and his theatre, for a peppercorn, from the city. His membership scheme numbers seven times the national average and he’s selling 370,000 tickets a year in a county whose population is 880,000.
He and his theatre have been part of the Touring Partnership of ten regional theatres which pool resources to ensure good companies get on the road, and he believes it was their support that kept Matthew Bourne and his dancers in this country.
The councils are content because for a modest responsibility they have a community theatre that operates 18 hours a day for the citizens, and provides box office services for other Norwich and Norfolk venues and events with no surreptitious service/management/handling/administration charges, the kind of ticket price-loading that Wilson says would be a betrayal of his audience’s trust.
So what Alan Davey and his beleaguered arts council operation is going to have to do is work closely with local authorities (not always a comfortable relationship in the past) but also with private interests, corporates and educators to broker deals that will not only keep theatres’ lights up but ensure our audiences have the stage entertainment they want, deserve and, in times of recession especially, need.