London Theatre Consortium: ‘Working together empowers us’
Growing out of an Arts Council England project, the London Theatre Consortium offers collaborative working from cutting carbon footprints to creating apprenticeships targeting under-representation. Nick Smurthwaite reports
If recent controversies have taught us anything then it is that theatre management structures need more transparency and accountability. One way of achieving this is to share best practice with a wider peer group.
London Theatre Consortium, which encompasses 14 of the capital’s leading off-West End venues, is all about pooling resources and working collaboratively.
The theatres under the LTC umbrella are the Almeida, Battersea Arts Centre, the Bush, Donmar Warehouse, the Gate, Greenwich, Hampstead, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Soho, the Lyric Hammersmith, Tricycle, Young Vic, Unicorn and the Royal Court.
“Sharing intelligence makes us much more efficient,” says Lucy Davies, LTC chair as well as executive producer of the Royal Court. “Whenever there is a shared concern, such as tax relief, funding regulations or harassment in the workplace, we can appoint a task force made up of representatives from the LTC theatres and sort it out. It encourages a spirit of generosity rather than competition.”
The consortium grew out of a 2010 Arts Council England audience data project called Thrive, intended to better understand where out-of-town audiences were coming from, what they were choosing to see and whether there were ways of reaching out to those audiences across several different theatres.
Emma Rees, then based at West Yorkshire Playhouse, was recruited to set up and run the London Theatre Consortium the following year.
“Everyone embraced the idea of working collaboratively from the outset,” says Rees, whose previous job was running the Leeds-based touring company Unlimited Theatre. “One of the most important things that came out of those initial Arts Council meetings was how useful it was to get all those executive directors and producers, people like David Jubb from BAC and Neil Constable from the Almeida, around a table, having conversations and working together to the same ends.”
Guided by Rees, the participating executive directors identified five priority areas in which they believed it would be beneficial to work together. These were: sustainability, digital strategies, workforce development, shared work and shared procurement.
“One of our original guiding principles is that we work together as a collective to achieve strategic impacts that would be beyond the capacity of one or two theatres working together,” says Rees.
Sian Alexander, executive director of the Lyric, Hammersmith, agrees: “When you work together, it raises your game, you go further and achieve things on a greater scale. Even if individual theatres were working sustainably, we were able to work towards a more ambitious target as a group. The weight of the shared knowledge and responsibility empowers us to speak out about the things we feel are important, and to act on the things we feel can be improved.”
A prime example is the vexed question of workforce development and diversity, an issue that is affecting theatres around the country.
To date, LTC has created 63 apprenticeships across the 14 venues, targeting young people from under-represented areas of society, both in socio-economic and ethnic terms. Of those, 52 have now moved on to full employment in the creative sector.
“Our £1 million apprenticeship scheme has allowed us to diversify the sector at entry level, creating viable alternatives to university and finding hard-to-reach young people,” says Rees. “By doing it collectively we’ve been able to incubate some big ideas, such as recruiting 21 apprenticeships across London in 2013. The response to our appeal for candidates was incredible. Young people turned up in their hundreds. Of the total intake, 62% are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.”
Funding for the scheme came from several sources, including the Creative Employment Programme, Age Grant for Employers, the City Bridge Foundation, individual theatres within the group and the LTC’s own coffers.
Davies says: “The apprenticeship scheme has been on such a scale that if we’d all been doing our own individual schemes it wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact. It allows for big changes to happen quite quickly.”
Apprenticeships are confined to one venue – technical and community arts have proved to be the most sought-after disciplines – yet participating organisations are free to visit each other’s theatres and swap notes and experiences, providing opportunities for networking across the performing arts sector.
Meanwhile, the LTC’s rigorous sustainability programme dates back to 2010, since when LTC theatres estimate they have reduced their carbon footprint by 20%, and saved £380,000 in energy bills. They have worked in partnership with the charity Julie’s Bicycle, which works with cultural organisations in the UK and abroad to promote environmental sustainability in creative and business areas.
What is Julie’s Bicycle
Julie’s Bicycle is a London-based global charity whose aim is to make creative organisations more environmentally sustainable.
Working with more than 1,000 arts organisations in the UK and worldwide, its job is to measure, manage and reduce carbon footprints.
To this end, it has developed a set of free online carbon calculators, known as the Creative Industry Green Tools, now used by 3,000 organisations in 15 countries.
It is working in partnership with Arts Council England on an environmental programme with a focus on leadership and best practice, backed up by a programme of workshops, events and ongoing support.
In 2017 it launched the Creative Green Awards, and a consultancy project with the National Theatre to develop organisation-wide sustainability engagement.
“When you start to see results, either your own or other people’s, you might get a hint of competition but in a collaborative way,” says Alexander. “So you get people saying: ‘Oh, they’re doing that green thing and it’s worked really well, maybe we should do it.’ It escalates the pace at which things happen.”
In matters of procurement, they have found that using the same provider for some services across all 14 venues can often produce big savings.
Alexander adds: “Over time we’ve realised that, although we’re all different and distinctive, there are many areas in which we are not in competition where being supportive and collaborative benefits us all. It’s about introducing systemic changes and strategies across the group rather than just doing everything locally.”
Of the 14 theatres, 11 have female executive directors, so it was hardly surprising that the response to the Royal Court’s Code of Practice and Day of Action in the wake of last year’s harassment revelations was whole-hearted and instantaneous. The member theatres were shown the draft code before it was made public.
Davies says: “These conversations about equality and how you look after the workforce come up a lot at the quarterly LTC meetings, so nobody was surprised when the Royal Court took the lead.”
Clearly the backing of the member theatres was important to Davies and Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone prior to going public with the Code of Practice.
“By having an established communication channel and trust in our dealings with one another, the Royal Court was able to ask the group if it was something we wanted to support,” says Alexander. “That initiative has enabled us to have an open conversation about it and to say there is no place for harassment of any kind in our theatres.”
Such has been the success of LTC’s business model that other regional consortia have followed suit, including Manchester Arts Sustainability Team, covering some 30 performing and cultural organisations, and Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues, embracing 22 cultural venues across Tyne and Wear.
“It’s not that they’ve copied what we’ve done – it’s in the zeitgeist,” says Rees. “When budgets are squeezed, it makes sense to find ways of saving costs and working together.”