Mapping London’s theatres

London's National Theatre. Photo: David Samuels
London's National Theatre. Photo: David Samuels
Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor, print of The Stage.
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How many professional theatres are there in London? You don’t know? Don’t worry, you are not alone. I am currently in the midst of writing a report commissioned by the Society of London Theatre and National Theatre which is trying – for what we think is the first time – to get to grips with the size, scope, scale and schematics of the entirety of the capital’s theatre ecosystem.

This report has been borne out of frustration. Working in and around theatre there are a lot of things that we instinctively know, that we take for granted. We are world-beaters at making theatre in the UK, and in London specifically, but when it comes to collating data to prove the health and vibrancy of the sector, we are lagging some way behind the competition.

[pullquote]We are world-beaters at making theatre in the UK, and in London specifically, but when it comes to collating data to prove the health and vibrancy of the sector, we are lagging some way behind the competition[/pullquote]

I recently gave a talk to a group of young entrepreneurs who were studying on a cross-sector course covering the creative industries. From one week to the next they were looking into areas as diverse as film, music, publishing, online entertainment and, yes, theatre. They were universally shocked at the lack of information available about our industry when compared to these other sectors.

The fact that nobody can tell you (with any real reliability) how many theatres there are in London is just one example of the kind of pretty basic information that as a sector we are lacking. While a number has been published in the recent World Cities Culture Report, the full list is not publicly available and the number appears to have been an estimate.

Historically, the reason for this is the fragmentation of the sector. Despite the fact that artists and creatives move freely from fringe to subsidised theatres to the commercial West End, when it has come to any form of report on London theatre previously, these have tended to focus on one area of the industry. So, while SOLT publishes an in-depth annual guide to its members’ box office and attendances, this only covers a portion of theatres in the capital – certainly a large portion, but by no means all of it. Likewise, when the arts council talks about theatre (in London or elsewhere), it is talking about the theatre it funds, not all theatre, so you are again being presented with a partial view.

The idea of the report is to present a complete picture of London theatre in 2013, or certainly a picture that is more complete than those that have gone before. This includes 50-seat backroom theatres above pubs, local authority-run theatres in outer London, major national institutions like the National Theatre and commercial giants like the Lyceum or the Apollo Victoria.

I am writing the report, but I am being supported by a crack team from within the theatre industry – SOLT chief executive Julian Bird and its president Mark Rubinstein, National Theatre executive director Nick Starr and deputy executive director Kate Horton, commercial producer Matthew Byam Shaw and Theatrical Management Association general manager David Brownlee. We meet every month or so to discuss the research and decide how to progress.

Our first task was defining specifically what we mean by professional theatre in London. What is London? What is theatre? What is professional?

None of these are entirely straightforward, but briefly: we’re looking at Greater London; a theatre is a structure that stages drama, musical theatre, opera or dance; and professional is a theatre that self-defines as professional (or hosts shows that self-define as professional) and is reviewed as such by critics. Clearly, there is a bit more to it than that and we will be publishing the full methodology when the completed report is ready – we hope in the autumn.

So, why am I writing about this now? Well, the truth is that we need your help. We think we have compiled a list of all professional theatres in Greater London. This has been achieved by contacting every London council and asking them for a list of premises that are licensed for performance within their borough. We have then gone through that list, discounting the (hundreds of) venues that while licensed for theatre are never actually used as such. The final list has then been cross-checked against SOLT, TMA, Independent Theatre Council and OffWestEnd.com membership and the list of theatres in the Performing Arts Yearbook.

We think there are more than 230 professional theatres in London, with a combined seating capacity of over 100,000. However, we are certain that we will have missed some. We may have even omitted the theatre that you run – it may be in a church or a back room above a pub used for fringe theatre, it may be a permanent open-air venue we have overlooked. So, while the list is still in draft form, we are asking for you to read it and let us know of any omissions, so that when we publish the final report it can be as complete as possible.

The full list is available, listed by borough, here. If you spot any omissions, you can either comment below the article or contact me direct via my byline above.

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