Arts Council England has a terror of being seen as “Londoncentric”, giving disproportionate amounts of its shrinking grant to arts projects and artists in the capital, to the detriment of those in the English regions, and it’s a phobia others have come to respect, in that we don’t expect ACE to wade in to solve problems in London as they might in, say, Newcastle.
Hence the important report on the plight of fringe theatre comes not from the national body, as perhaps it should, but from the economy committee in the London Assembly which has produced a report that, although framed as a London review, has national reverberations.
Assembly member Tom Copley has produced the report, Centre Stage, which shows that many of London’s small theatres feel themselves under threat of being closed or converted and 75% need significant repairs to their buildings.
These little theatres in London and around the country are the lifeblood of who we are, our drama for which we are world leaders. Next month in Edinburgh we get a an undiluted feast of how good it can be, but it goes on all the year round in studios, community halls and pub venues.
These places are vulnerable in a way that the Society of London Theatre doesn’t seem to notice. While the West End moaned about the Olympic effects of last summer, it “suffered” for maybe a week and then recorded its biggest ever profits. The arts theatres suffered and are still suffering.
So while the West End piles up record profits, tapping into the VisitBritain tourism drive, too little of that comes back to the roots where playwrights, directors and actors learn about putting on a play in the toughest possible conditions.
Copley’s report is to the London Assembly and the Mayor, and calls on Boris Johnson to do something about it, but it is not just Bojo that needs to mobilise.
There should be protection from the predatory property developers who acquire the buildings around little theatre companies with a view to development
As I reported a couple of weeks ago, and Alan Davey has this week confirmed, the 5% cut to the arts seen as a triumph will not be absorbed and will still mean pain on the front line. But it will also mean creative thinking on ACE’s behalf, and a sophistication of that tool so warmly advocated on all sides of the arts funding debate – partnerships.
What Boris Johnson could do is not (as he no doubt will) simply shelve the report, but use it to bring together SOLT, the Theatrical Management Association, the Theatres Trust, the arts council and individual fat cat producers like ATG (maybe they could contribute their “administration fees” on tickets) to create an endowment for not just London’s small theatres, but the whole of England’s.
But there should also be protection from the predatory property developers who acquire the buildings around little theatre companies with a view to development. In London, we’ve lost the Mermaid and we nearly lost the Arts Theatre because there was not municipal or central government will to use legislation to challenge profiteers, and the Mayor should use his pull in the City to get it in on the act, a move that would not only be effective in London but would knock-on all over the country.
We are a little country. Little is what we do best, and when we lose the small the great is under notice to follow very soon afterwards.