Arts Council England is to undertake its most comprehensive assessment of the theatre sector since Peter Boyden’s landmark investigation into regional producing venues and the ensuing Theatre Review in 2001.
Following the announcement last Friday of the funding body’s final – and in some cases controversial – subsidy decisions for arts organisations for the next three years, ACE has revealed it is planning a thorough, state of the industry report into theatre that will inform its funding of the art form at the spending review in 2011.
Barbara Matthews, ACE director of theatre strategy, told The Stage: “It seems to me that since the Theatre Review it has only been five or six years, but during that time, demographically, economically and in terms of the art form we’re in a different world. There have been huge success stories over the last few years in terms of bringing other money into the arts regionally – Regional Development Agencies and all sorts of other sources – which makes it a very complex world for our arts organisations to operate in. The extra money comes at a price. It’s something that we need to understand better.
“We’ll be looking at where we’ve achieved what we set out to do following the Theatre Review and whether there are any commonalities, and where we haven’t achieved it, can we work out why it has gone wrong? Then, going forward, we’ll look at what we can do better.”
According to Matthews, she suggested the assessment soon after she joined the arts council last year. The project will look at the impact of the extra £25 million invested into producing theatre following the Theatre Review and will consider why certain building-based companies – such as Bristol Old Vic and Derby Playhouse – have struggled over the past few years. Meanwhile, Matthews will also make it a priority to re-establish a strategic overview for touring work.
“I went to Peter [Hewitt - then ACE chief executive] and the executive board and said, ‘Look, I want to do this, because I want to be in a better position next time round to be really able to argue the case for the art form and to know what to do’. But I have to say they were very happy to let me do the assessment,” she explained.
From now until the end of the financial year, ACE will look at all the figures relating to the theatre industry to gain an overall statistical impression of the state of the sector, before “going out and talking to people”. An outside person or organisation – fulfilling the role Boyden undertook last time – will be brought on board to oversee the process, although Matthews stressed she will be heavily involved.
“I hope that when we look at it, we will find that just as much theatre is being made,” Matthews added. “In fact, I am quite sure it will be more, but it won’t necessarily be in the same places, or the ones people expected.
“We need to talk to artists more. Because you can sit here rather like in those Ministry of Defence rooms, pushing little models around tables, but actually you need to have room to respond and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of that’. If you involve artists, you suddenly find out that the table wasn’t a rectangle and you only thought you had a rectangle to play with.”