Theatre 2016 preview: What will leaders discuss at theatre’s biggest event?
At next week’s Theatre 2016 conference, of which The Stage is a media partner, leading figures from the industry will give their thoughts on the threats and opportunities facing theatre in the 21st century. We hear from four of the keynote speakers ahead of the event.
Vikki Heywood, chairman of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce
For me, what is great about theatre practice and what needs to change are the same things – and that’s the challenge. As theatre practitioners and artists, we pride ourselves on reflecting the world on our stages, in our work, in our organisations.
Our canvas is the world. Our inspiration is finding ways to show it how it is – to address the human condition. We do this in so many extraordinary ways. Our country leads the world in the theatre that it produces.
Our theatre arts and practice feed and seed other arts activity both in the UK and in the rest of the world. It feeds our economy. It provides jobs. It creates wealth.
We are brilliant at collaboration. We are expert at making every pound in our pocket stretch to five. We love challenges, and we solve problems.
Yet at the same time we know it is impossible to show all human conditions, from all perspectives, in our theatre arts. To my certain knowledge we have been talking about the problem for the last 35 years. I have to admit that for those 35 years I have been frustrated by my – our shared – inability to ensure that ‘our’ world, was ‘the’ world.
We don’t dig deeply into how we recruit and train people
We tried. We innovated. We introduced change. There were initiatives. We continued with the ones that worked and naturally we dropped the ones that didn’t.
Successes were mostly on stage – rarely offstage. At the Contact in Manchester, at the Royal Court, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, along with many others, we made progress, but I did not reach out to others and create a national, coordinated plan. Where we failed was to ensure these were not isolated actions.
We share the problems – we never try sharing the solutions. But, hey, in the end our doors are open. Anyway, it’s not really my job, it’s someone else’s job to solve the national and largely social problem.
The solutions begin at the beginning.
I don’t believe we dig that deeply into understanding how we recruit and train people for our theatre industry; how they finance themselves; how they are attracted to theatre as a career; how they understand it is something they can do; how they find out if they have talent; how they penetrate our networks.
Now I am chairman of Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, I know just how hard it really is for people of talent to have an equal path to our door.
So, in my view we need focused and united action across the whole of the theatre arts and the UK – the makers, the commissioners, the managers, the trainers and the funders – if we are going to create real change.
Collective, coordinated and informed action. No more silos that achieve an isolated initiative here, a scheme there – we need to bring all the gatekeepers together and open the doors.
This is the biggest business challenge we face, and change needs to come. For all our sakes, it needs to come quickly.
Jenny Sealey, artistic director and CEO of Graeae Theatre Company
At the risk of always talking about the same thing, I have to talk about where Deaf and disabled people are placed within the theatrical landscape this year. And so far it has been – and continues to look – rather good.
Our co-production with Theatre Royal Plymouth saw Graeae’s Amit Sharma beautifully direct Jack Thorne’s play The Solid Life of Sugar Water, which toured nationally, ending with a three-week run at the National Theatre. It has only taken us 35 years to get there!
Roxana Silbert directed David Harrower’s adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector (on tour), which is the first production by the Ramps on the Moon theatre consortium. Ramps was set up in response to the hugely successful production of The Threepenny Opera in 2014, a co-production between Graeae, New Wolsey Theatre, Birmingham Rep, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse. This show featured a large cast of Deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors, and Graeae’s artistic aesthetics were embedded within it.
I’m optimistic that change is happening
Theatre Royal Stratford East and Sheffield Theatres have joined us in this adventure, which pledges to have large integrated casts on stage, with seamless access led by Agents for Change. Ramps will also provide continuing professional development for the actors involved and job opportunities for Deaf and disabled directors, as well as staff in production and administrative departments. This heralds a new era of theatre, an era of acceptance and realisation that Deaf and disabled people should be – and can be – involved in a variety of shows at these theatres, and not just Ramps productions. This is sending out a very powerful message to the wider world.
What else – Storme Toolis’ Redefining Juliet was at the Barbican; Charlie Arrowsmith directed Blackout as part of National Theatre Connections with Deafinitely Theatre’s young Deaf actors programme; Nadia Albina was cast in productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Theatre Royal Stratford East panto; Cian Binchy and Access All Areas’ production of The Misfit Analysis (a play about autism) got five-star reviews (of course it did, it is brilliant); Jess Thom’s wonderful Backstage in Biscuit Land continues to place the adventures of living with Tourette’s on stage; and disabled actor Jamie Beddard is in Rufus Norris’ production of The Threepenny Opera at the NT.
Purposeless Movements, from the ever-brilliant Birds of Paradise, placed five men all with cerebral palsy centre-stage, creating a new emotional narrative. BOP is also touring Wendy Hoose, a hilarious sex and disability taboo-breaking production. Tangere Arts is taking Mike Kenny’s adaptation of The Pied Piper to the Point in Eastleigh, and we also have the disability arts Unlimited season, featuring Kate O’Reilly’s production of Cosy, Sheila Hill’s Him and Liz Carr’s work-in-progress of Assisted Suicide – The Musical. At Graeae, we’re reviving the concert version of our Ian Dury musical Reasons to be Cheerful at Latitude and Milton Keynes International Festival.
It is good, isn’t it? We are finally gracing quite a few platforms and getting the visibility and kudos we have been working for over the last 40 years or so. But is it good enough yet? Is it a bit sad that I can pretty much name every Deaf and disabled person who has been on the stage in the UK this year? Can I say to Graeae’s ensemble and our Rollettes (Graeae’s young artistic advisers): ‘The world of theatre is waiting for you with open arms and you will get the opportunity to develop and hone your craft because you will get a real diversity of roles to get your teeth into?’
I have to be quietly optimistic. As small as this change in attitude may seem, it is everything Graeae has advocated. Although this has all been so frustrating and a long time coming, it really feels like something has shifted. Graeae and all the other companies will continue to be the solid foundation to make sure all this does not slip through. We want to and will be a support to continue to inform and engineer change.
Kully Thiarai, incoming artistic director and chief executive of National Theatre Wales
When it comes to the arts in Britain there is certainly a lot to celebrate and shout about but also, perhaps, just as much that should worry us.
It has been a joy to see the massive growth in the numbers of artists and creatives, directors and writers who come from diverse backgrounds. They seek to disturb the air a little and shed light on narratives and stories that speak to our contemporary and complex world. It’s certainly a very different landscape to the one I started out in many years ago. The performing arts are rich and complex, inspiring and thought-provoking. Britain leads the way.
Perhaps, though, when you look a little closer, things are not quite what they seem or as rosy as they could be.
Yes, we may see ourselves as leading the world when it comes to making theatre. Yes, our cultural industries generate significant value to our country and our economy. Yes, our talent is celebrated across the world. Yes, in our towns and cities, in makeshift spaces, in surprising places, artists find way of expressing themselves; creating new narratives and stories with few resources and amazing tenacity. Yes, we can show how culture has regenerated whole cities and towns.
But we also squander talent. We block opportunity. We encourage merely the familiar and safe. We fear the ‘other’ and frequently underestimate our audiences and fail our communities.
The arts world looks insular and cliquey
Perhaps we are blinded to what else could be possible because, as yet, the playing field remains uneven. Perhaps we are fearful of change. Certain doors are firmly shut with entry possible only for the select few.
In 1998, when I was re-imagining Contact Theatre, the constant refrain was that young people were not interested in theatre and that it would become a glorified youth club. Since its reopening in 1999, Contact has been a model many have sought to emulate, nationally and internationally. Some of our most interesting young artists have ‘grown up’ there, creating contemporary work, breaking conventions and challenging the status quo. Of course it was a risk, but isn’t that what we should be doing? Exploring the new, challenging the known and making possible the impossible?
More recently I’ve heard some artistic directors say that there are no black, Asian and minority ethnic directors capable of directing work for our major stages. I wonder if what they really mean is that they don’t know any.
I often hear the mantra of “there is no audience for that”, yet rarely a discussion or exploration about why that might be the case. What are we doing that stops certain audiences from coming? What decisions are we taking? What assumptions are we making? How genuine are we being when we say our theatres are for everyone, and how is that reflected in our actions?
There are, of course, powerful forces of history at play. Access and opportunity are not equal. Our canon of work does not represent all our stories. We like to think we are radical and innovative. Sometimes we are, but generally we are not. We like to think we are great collaborators. Often we are, but new and different voices are not easily embraced and welcomed.
The successes and challenges for theatre beyond the capital are regularly overlooked. Nurturing of the complex ecology across the country, necessary for a sustainable and vibrant sector, is piecemeal. From the margins, the arts world looks insular and cliquey. You must know and play by the rules to be part of the gang.
The digital revolution is radically changing the way we access and engage with culture. We can all be creators and consumers of art. Digital platforms offer new pathways for artists to be seen and heard and for audiences to make their own choices on how and when to connect and consume culture. The old models and constructs are under threat, and theatre has rather a lot of catching up to do.
We have to learn to do things differently: to share our resources differently; to relinquish power to those who previously have not had it; to embrace change and celebrate difference.
We all have to be bold and brave. If we can manage that, we will find countless wonders that are currently beyond our imagination.
Eleanor Lloyd, independent producer
Over the last 10 years, the commercial and not-for-profit sectors have become closer and more intricately linked. Subsidised theatres of all sizes are becoming increasingly involved in the commercial life of their projects, and the commercial sector is working with not-for-profits to develop and produce new shows. The result is an increasingly diverse range of productions in the West End with a bolder artistic content – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 1984, Chimerica, The Father, Clybourne Park, Jerusalem – all of which broaden the definition of what can make a commercial success. A successful transfer not only gives thousands more people a chance to see great theatre, it encourages audiences to come back for more and producers to keep taking risks, particularly on new work.
But the West End still needs to fight the perception among some that it ‘is not for them’. To do that, we must tackle the thorny issue of price. It is a fascinating (honestly!) and complicated issue. Firstly, let’s be clear, the West End is a free market. Producers choose their ticket prices based on what people will pay. If you see what looks like an outrageously high ticket price, I can guarantee that people are buying tickets at that price.
The West End needs to fight the perception of high ticket prices
But the result can be a focus on those high prices. The media love to run a story with a headline about “extortionate West End prices”. You don’t often read about the fact that many West End shows have a price of around £15 to £25 and front-row day seats for £10.
Sometimes I think the West End should take a marketing lesson from EasyJet – everyone thinks they can fly to Portugal for £30. Of course, if you want to go on your first-choice date and time it will likely cost you more, but the truth remains that, regardless of the final cost, EasyJet has made Portugal feel accessible. Maybe we just need to look closer to home and see how theatres such as the National, Donmar and Old Vic have successfully promoted their more accessible prices alongside their higher ones.
For a West End show, it is often the most expensive and the cheapest tickets that sell first. One thing I’ve tried is balancing larger numbers of cheaper tickets with a premium ticket price – a kind of ticket-price redistribution. But however carefully considered our pricing structure may be on paper, this story doesn’t reach our audience partly because it is the higher prices that grab the headlines and partly because of the way that West End tickets are sold.
A huge proportion of West End tickets are sold by ticket agents. They act as middle-men, providing valuable sales channels but also complicating the relationship between producer and audience. For one of my shows, the highest price (apart from premiums) on a Friday night is £55, including booking fees, but those same tickets are on sale through a leading ticket agent for £68. Suddenly the few £77.50 premium tickets that enable us to keep much of the grand circle at £25 are listed at £96. So much for my carefully considered pricing.
Commercial producing is a precarious business. If you are lucky enough to have a show where demand is high, the short-term appeal of higher prices and higher profit can allow a producer to take the risk on the next one… or pay off the last. Longer term, as an industry we rely on repeat visits: audiences having a great time and so coming to the West End to see something else. Will they think twice when they look at what they spent and realise experience hasn’t quite lived up to the price paid?
But price isn’t the only issue. The most expensive shows in the West End are the musicals, which are often those with the broadest audiences of thousands of people a night. Every year, more people go to theatres around the UK than attend all Premier League, Football League and Scottish Premiership matches combined. At the same time as shouting about this from the rooftops, we need to make sure we are looking to the future. We will only get more diversity in our audiences if we have more diversity on and behind our stages. We need to encourage the theatregoing habit from an early age, and local theatres are a huge part of that. For now, the central government arts budget is stable – but we all know that local government is feeling the pressure.
I am worried that drama GCSE no longer requires seeing a live performance. We need to give young people an opportunity to discover the joy of theatre. Many shows are not sold out and an empty seat has no value the next day. Perhaps we need to give young people access to these seats directly, helping to fill the gap left by falling numbers of school trips.
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