Equity warns of regional production ‘collapse’

Lalayn Baluch

Equity has raised concerns about the state of regional theatre, claiming that the scale of in-house production in repertory houses across the UK has fallen, despite increased public investment.

According to the union, data obtained from the theatres reveals a drop in the total number of employment weeks for actors in subsidised repertory venues. This could indicate fewer in-house productions, shorter runs or venues programming shows with smaller casts.

Figures are based on contracts returned by 51 regional venues for each financial year between 2002/3 and 2007/8. They show that the number of working weeks for actors went up by 251 to 23,095 in 2003/4 – following Arts Council England’s £25 million annual funding boost for theatre – and hit a peak the following year when 23,996 weeks were recorded.

However, the three subsequent years saw a gradual fall, with 2,284 fewer working weeks available to actors by 2007/8 – dropping to 21,712. This is lower than the number of actor working weeks in 2000/1, when the figure was 23,090. Equity claims that this indicates a “fairly serious collapse in in-house productions”.

The data also shows that during this time, the amount of funding allocated to the same theatres has increased significantly. In 2003/4, the amount rose by about £6.3 million to £35,514,309 and continued to rise until 2007/8, when £41,400,915 was awarded.

Equity spokesman Martin Brown said: “What we believe it shows is that, while arts council funding has risen, activity on the Equity/TMA sub rep contract has fallen. We believe this must mean that there has been a fairly serious collapse in in-house production.

“What we don’t know is what has replaced it. Is there less activity overall? Is there the same amount of activity, but in-house production has been replaced by bought-in commercial shows or collaborations with small-scale theatre operation on the ITC [Independent Theatre Council] contract? We don’t know.”

Brown said the figures indicated a shift away from the “sub rep model of plays in a playhouse produced locally” for local audiences and fears that replacing such shows with received work could mean a lack of “coherent artistic vision” in regional theatres.

He added: “The other reason why we believe this matters is the impact of sub rep productions on the West End. The West End relies on sub rep for a significant proportion of its incoming productions – principally, but not exclusively, straight plays. If sub rep original production is in decline, what does that mean for the West End in the future?”

According to the figures, a number of venues, including the Plymouth Theatre Royal and Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, peaked in 2004/5, but have seen a fall in actor weeks since.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s figures also show a general trend for fewer actor working weeks since 2002/3, with a significant drop in 2007/8. However, WYP general director and joint chief executive Sheena Wrigley said the variation depended on the repertoire and pointed out that the venue’s actor weeks increased significantly in 2008/9 – a year not included in Equity’s figures.

Wrigley said the venue had staged around 12 or 13 in-house shows for the last five years and explained that, while each show ran for a different length of time at the theatre, most shows then went on to tour other venues.

She also explained that for the past five years, the venue had undertaken more co-productions and touring work.

Wrigley added: “The bigger picture here is that actor employment is growing in areas that are less traditional and maybe there are real benefits to the shifts we are seeing. There are a lot of very good touring companies and we work with them much more collaboratively than we did ten years ago.

“We run a lot of work into schools and community centres, they are not traditionally rep productions, but they do employ actors. Some of the work we are doing on how we connect to our audiences through technology uses actors, again it is not a traditional rep production.”

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