The word ‘regional’ is a loaded one. It carries baggage. As theatre journalist Catherine Love wrote in a recent column for Exeunt, it’s “a tag that risks being used to imply something limited, something insular and blinkered, perhaps even something quaintly pastoral.”
At its bluntest it can be used to mean ‘not London’, something outside and other, but to read it this way is too ignore the fact that London is a place of limits too, especially in outlook, and to be honest there are times when it can feel as insular and bubble-like as the Edinburgh Fringe at its most fevered.
To be truly regional, on the other hand, is to be rooted in a particular place and part of a wider community, alert to the specific needs of an audience. Regional theatre, at its best, is responsive, supporting local artists to create work which perhaps wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be made in the capital.
Regional theatre, at its best, is responsive, supporting local artists to create work which perhaps wouldn’t – or couldn’t – be made in the capital.
Another of the preconceptions of regional theatre is that it’s a bit stiff, cycling through the same old shows, always playing catch up, but this is – of course – also far from true. Speaking to Roxana Silbert, the incoming artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, following the launch of their centenary season at Soho Theatre earlier this month, she repeatedly stressed the need to keep on questioning the role of what a regional theatre can and should be in the UK today. In her view, a theatre like the Rep “should be constantly evaluating and changing in order to reflect the social and political landscape.” This idea of reflection, for her, went hand in hand with one of support and development – of local talent, emerging or otherwise – and of duty, to the audience and the artist, to create work that was both “excellent and diverse.”
One of the things she mentioned that really resonated was the number of artists working with the venue now whose formative theatre experiences were at the Rep. This sense of continuity is truly heartening; this idea of people returning to the site of their first theatre memories and creating those memories for a new generation of theatregoers.
Built in 1766, the Bristol Old Vic has a history even longer than that of the Rep. The playhouse – which reopened this month, after a lengthy period of renovation, with a production of John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats – has been reinvigorated under Tom Morris’ artistic directorship and refurbished for the 21st century, its 18th century layout informing its current design. With both these venues there’s a real sense that as alive as they are to the weight of their past, their primary aim is to create work that chimes, a mixture of the innovative and the trusted. The first production under Silbert’s tenure will be a Philip Pullman adaptation: which potentially means more memories created, more people inspired, and as a model for regional theatre this seems more than healthy.