‘We’re on the margins of viability’

Kyle Lima (Demetrius) and Naomi Cranston (Helena) in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Kyle Lima (Demetrius) and Naomi Cranston (Helena) in A Midsummer Night's Dream by Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppet Company at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Ask Tom Morris, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, about his theatre or the city of Bristol, and he is all joie de vivre and enthusiasm. But if the conversation turns to the arts cuts or the future of regional theatre, though, his concerns are obvious.

Running the oldest continuously working theatre in the country, Morris has a multi-million-pound refurbishment under his belt, and a theatre that is well-loved by its community, both locally and further afield. He is, however, fighting artistic and financial battles that are all too familiar to directors up and down the country.

He clearly loves his “extraordinary” home, but is candid about its financial state. “Bristol Old Vic is operating on the margins of viability and is precariously underfunded. What we do have is a strong brand, a lot of affection from the theatre community and the local community, and a platform from which we can raise funds. We can celebrate the extraordinary creative energy of other organisations in the city which don’t have that brand or reputation – the ideal for me is that BOV becomes a gateway through which anyone can explore the amazing things that are going on in the city.”

[pullquote]If I stop thinking about running this theatre and start thinking about the arts infrastructure in Britain in 10-15 years’ time then I am really worried[/pullquote]

Venture outside the city, though, and things are less rosy. “Somerset has withdrawn all its arts funding and the Brewhouse has gone from Taunton, so we’re trying to take more of our work out regionally. Lots of the opportunities around here for artists are happening at a time when there’s less going on outside Bristol. The creative potential in the region is in danger because the infrastructure has been removed.”

Morris is scathing about culture minister Ed Vaizey’s response to concerns about the cuts. “Ed Vaizey says there’s no impact on new writing. Fin Kennedy says there is. Ed Vaizey asks him to prove it. Fin Kennedy does [with his report, In Battalions]. Ed Vaizey says ‘I’m not really bothered about new writing, I’ve got other things to worry about,’ end of conversation. What Kennedy’s saying is true, of course. If you’ve got less money, you have to manage your risks really prudently and, inevitably, one of the risk areas is new writing.”

Bristol Old Vic, he says, is not exempt from these pressures: “For a big show, the box office target is absolutely terrifying. It has to pay for itself and if it doesn’t then suddenly we have a hole in the budget of, say, £200,000. Of course you have to be very, very careful with your risk. We put our risk into the small-scale, with things like Bristol Ferment, where the difference between a sell-out house and a tumbleweed house is manageable, because it’s only 50 or 100 people in a studio theatre.”

Morris reiterates several times that Bristol is a wonderful city in which to work and create work: “There’s a gravitational field which seems to pull artists to the city. It brings in people who want the space to think a bit differently, not just in the cultural sector but in business too, there are all sorts of quirky and left-field entrepreneurs.”

The city certainly has a healthy number of artists, musicians, writers and theatre-makers for its size. Perhaps Bristol is regaining its reputation as an international city? Morris agrees: “I went to see a demo by some guys called AntiVJ who are experimenting with digital projection. I met them afterwards and was really surprised that they were French – they were in Brittany and heard that if you have an entrepreneurial or different idea then Bristol is the city to go to.

“There’s a sort of trend-bucking economic resurgence in Bristol, which George Ferguson – the new mayor – clearly attributes to the creativity and the arts stuff. Bristol council, as we moved towards cuts, amazingly, made a small increase in its cultural budget.”

Tom Morris on the Bristol Old Vic stage. Photo: Paul Blakemore
Tom Morris on the Bristol Old Vic stage. Photo: Paul Blakemore

There are practical reasons for Bristol’s artistic vibrancy, too, most notably its relatively low living costs. “The economic reality is that there is no longer a properly embedded culture infrastructure which is going to give continuous employment to people who graduate in whatever art form, but in Bristol there is a lively scene of people professionalised in different ways – people making work and making money, but as creative entrepreneurs not just artists looking for jobs.” Morris also praises the “ongoing conversation” that he and Bristol Old Vic have with other venues, organisations and artists throughout Bristol, and beyond: “Without that kind of collaboration we couldn’t make the work we do. It makes it very exciting, but if I stop thinking about running this theatre and start thinking about the arts infrastructure in Britain in 10-15 years’ time then I am really worried. Arts cuts are the same across the country and the world, and I’m really worried.”

Looking to the future, Morris reckons one of two things is likely to happen: “Either George Osborne will win the argument and there will be further cuts, and the arts will either be punished disproportionately or cut the same as every else; or Vince Cable will win the argument – with [Conservative universities minister] David Willets and others supporting him, because it’s not just a party issue – and there will be some radical thinking about which bits of public expenditure stimulate economic revival.

“It really goes back to that argument about why a society should invest in its arts and what a society might hope to get from that. There are things about social benefit and human well-being that are true, of course, but at the moment the argument that has the most sway is the one about the arts’ economic impact, not just in terms of turnover, but in terms of the stimulation of local and national economies.”

4 Comments

  1. What Tom Morris and the Bristol Old Vic need to consider – if one is not already in place – and develop is an ongoing subscription-based, supporter network that will both tie-in and consolidate customer/audience/sponsor support oover a renewable, fixed period of time. The BoV needs to use every social-networking and smart-marketing trick in the book to help gain both creative and financial strength from an interested and active supporter base. It could also cast its production/receiving net much wider by looking at importing successful Off/Off-Off Broadway producers and productions eager for a cheaper and higher-quality try-out base for new and revival projects. Cast your net wide and wider still Bristol, haul it in and see what is inside.

  2. The Morris tenure is ill-represented here, once again. As an audience member (and sponsor) at BOV for many years, Morris has been another BOV annoyance. He is disliked by many in Bristol as he continues the trend for London centric shows with little substance (unless is a Travelling Light co-pro) He has increased the office staff at the theatre with many appointments from London. He expects Bristol companies to work for nothing in Ferment. He barely speaks to any local artists or local businesses. His plan rests on getting a transfer to London or New York but often based on his own untrained, novice directing. Please stop praising him, when down the road, Salisbury Playhouse is properly supporting emerging local artists and engaging with audiences and businesses. Or when further over The Sherman are actively developing regional contacts.

  3. I do not normally respond in ‘Comments’, but JerD’s response to the article has inaccuracies which I feel need addressing.

    In the interests of clarity my name is Adam Peck, I have lived in Bristol since 2006, and I am a freelance dramaturg and writer. I have worked on-and-off at Bristol Old Vic since I moved to the city, and have made seven shows there during this period (under the leadership of Simon Reade, then Tom Morris). I have also made work with and for the Tobacco Factory and Travelling Light.

    Whether Morris is “ill-represented”, “another BOV annoyance” (who were the others…?), or “disliked by many in Bristol” are matters of opinion. I am not in a position (unlike JerD thinks he/she is) to declare who thinks what, but I will say that I have spoken to a great deal of Bristol’s theatre community over the past two years (usually post-show) about Morris’s artistic directorship of Bristol Old Vic, and I am under the impression that he is valued for his ideas, openness, ability to “marriage-make” artists and his passion and care for theatre in Bristol. He is also well-known for being an advocate of government subsidy for the arts.

    I have made a number of shows for Bristol Ferment and I have never been asked to work for free. Payment is consistently low (£50 per day), but it is simply untrue that Morris “expects Bristol companies to work for nothing”. As the article says, resources are in short supply, and artistic risk has to be managed in order to promote innovation whilst minimising risk to the organisation as a whole. This is a balancing act which everyone must understand. Being an artist unfortunately often involves surviving on low wages (I worked as a waiter for over 10 years to subsidise my income before I managed to make a living from making theatre) – it is not a problem specific to Bristol.

    Morris speaks to local artists all the time. In fact, Ferment was born out of his (and Kate Yedigaroff’s) desire to talk to artists based in the South West, and to engage them with Bristol Old Vic. Ed Rapley, Natalie McGrath, Tim Atack, Tom Wainwright and Shiona Morton (among others) have all shown work at Bristol Ferment and gone on to present work elsewhere, directly or indirectly through their involvement with Morris’s development programme. To say that he “barely speaks to any local artists” is untrue – Bristol Ferment is constantly communicating and testament to the contrary.

    What is a “London-centric show”? Bristol Old Vic productions have employed a number of London-based artists under Morris’s tenure, but they have also employed Bristol-based ones (and more recently South Africa-based ones). It seems to me that JerD represents the view that I have heard expressed on a number of occasions (usually by Bristolians who I perceive to be suffering from some sort of inferiority complex), that “London-people are stealing our jobs”. I know for a fact that many South West-based artists are considered for roles within Bristol Old Vic productions, and are often appointed. In fact South-West based actors have constituted large proportions of casts over Morris’s tenure. Think Tristan Strurrock (Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Juliet and Her Romeo), Saskia Portway (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coram Boy), Craig Edwards (Treasure Island), Saikat Ahamed (Peter Pan, Treasure Island), Stewart Wright (Wild Oats, Swallows and Amazons), Jo Hall (Coram Boy), Zara Ramm (Treasure Island), Stu McCloughlin (Peter Pan, Swallows and Amazons) – the list goes on. Sometimes, people from other cities (including London) are deemed more suitable for the job and employed – this happens all the time. I was recently employed by 3 theatres across England – do the natives in those places suddenly deem their theatres “Bristol-centric” because they are briefly employing someone from somewhere else? I doubt it. If JerD means that the work being produced is being made for a London audience (whatever that is), then consider the amount of Bristolians who are buying tickets to see the work and enjoying it. If JerD means Morris is ambitious and wants work made in Bristol to play elsewhere (“a transfer to London or New York”?), what is wrong with that? If JerD means something else, then perhaps JerD should make him/herself clearer.

    I am unsure whether Tom Morris has “increased the office staff at the theatre”, but I do know that the “many appointments from London” accounts for only two members of staff who still live in the capital (incidentally, one of those also has a house in Bristol, and the other grew up here). Everyone else who works at the theatre lives in or around Bristol, and whilst they may have been recruited from elsewhere have made Bristol their home.

    Perhaps if JerD is genuinely interested in how Bristol Old Vic operates, makes work and engages with artists, he /she should talk to some people who are actually involved in those things, and then make up his/her mind.

    Obviously, there is a much wider debate to be had about the role of an Artistic Director within an organisation, but since JerD has focussed his/her attention solely on the personality and actions of Morris it is this to which I have responded.

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