Leading bodies look collectively to the future for Theatre 2005 conference

Jeremy Austin

Whitehall’s apparent reluctance to adhere to a strict arm’s-length policy when providing public funds to the arts will form one of the main strands of the Theatre 2005 conference.

Organised jointly by the Independent Theatre Council, the Theatrical Management Association and the Society of London Theatre, the conference, titled Raising the bar… will be held at The Brewery in central London from May 19 to 20. It concentrates on three topics – the relevance of theatre, the renewal of the sector and leadership. Director of the ITC Charlotte Jones believes it is vital the industry defines itself in these three areas if it is to be free from what many believe to be an increasingly centralised public funding agenda.

“The fear is that we become a toothless and energyless industry,” said Jones. “We have leadership of individual organisations and then there is all sorts of shadow leadership from Arts Council England or the Department for Culture Media and Sport. There is leadership in terms of political agendas and [the question is] whether that is coming up with a strong sector focus or whether it is rather disparate.”

ACE chairman Christopher Frayling recently spoke of his concern at the extent to which Whitehall is trying to influence the funding body’s direction when it allocates public money to its client organisations. Recently The Stage published extracts from culture secretary Tessa Jowell’s letter to ACE that detailed how much money the organisation would receive from the DCMS and outlined ways in which its spending could be relevant to New Labour ideals. It seemed to confirm Frayling’s fears.

Jones continued: “I don’t think the arts can be created by strategy and prescription. [Artists] need to be nurtured and encouraged and given the freedom to make work that they want to make. Ultimately, good theatre comes from the idea, the idea comes from the person and the person has to have the right environment in which to work.”

It is the second time that the three main theatrical bodies have come together at one conference. The first one, in 2001, was held in the week that Peter Boyden’s report into the funding of the country’s subsidised repertory system was released – a report that heralded what many hoped would be regular, supportive funding of the arts rather than the stop-start funding that had been experienced under the last Conservative government.

Jones said that back then the atmosphere was one of confidence and optimism as people looked forward to having opportunities under a new funding regime that they could never have imagined before. Collaborations between companies covered by all three organisations emerged that would have been unthinkable, she claims, without the joining up of the small-scale, the regional and the West End sectors that Theatre 2001 facilitated.

With the feeling that the performing arts sector has now established that firm foothold – despite the most recent spending settlement from central government raising the spectre of a return to stop-start funding – this year’s conference is looking to build on that, hence its title. The theatre industry must raise its profile with government and policy-makers, it must expand its market and become accessible and relevant to a modern audience and it must have strong leadership to enable it to expand internationally.

“It is about raising our game, pushing parameters and raising aspirations of theatre, stretching it so that it really gets in touch with what people are thinking about in the 21st century,” Jones added.

Jones believes another issue that will be discussed is that of theatre’s right to freedom of expression, threatened recently by Sikhs rioting against Behzti in Birmingham and Christians picketing Jerry Springer – the Opera in the West End, or attempting to disrupt the forthcoming tour.

But by far the biggest sector to have already benefited from Theatre 2005 is young people’s theatre. Decimated by cuts in the eighties, the resurgence of this group can be compared to the return of fresh water fish to a cleaned up River Thames. With more money available to companies, the sector – though it has never completely gone away – now feels comfortable enough to make its presence felt. Organisers of the conference have been taken aback by the number of YPT groups and rural and community theatre companies that have applied to attend. Jones is delighted.

“It has reached a point where it can say ‘we do this well and we are very proud of it and we know we have a significant impact on the future’,” she said. “It is Young People’s Theatre that is going to renew theatre.”

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