Everyman director Paul Milton warns of looming regional theatre crisis

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Cheltenham Everyman Theatre creative director Paul Milton has warned of a crisis in the regions, claiming new writing in particular is at risk because of low audience attendance and reduced funding.

Milton was speaking last week at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain awards for the encouragement of new writing where he received an award in recognition of his work running the Cheltenham Everyman’s writers’ lab.

At the ceremony he issued a call for regional theatres to come together and launch a touring network that would allow the work of new playwrights to be presented around the UK.

Milton said: “Regional theatre is in crisis, it absolutely is. There is no getting away from it. Funding is getting less and less and audience figures are too.”

He revealed that the Cheltenham Everyman had recently staged Chin Chin, starring Felicity Kendal, which had sold out.

But the play before that – which was new and did not have star casting – had failed to attract an audience. He told the ceremony: “My board then say to me, ‘You can’t do that again’.”

The creative director said he wanted theatres around the UK to work together to create a “touring scheme” for new writing. This, he said, would boost the profile of original work.

Milton was nominated for his award by playwright Philippa Roberts, who praised him for running projects on reduced budgets. The venue lost its funding from Gloucestershire County Council two years ago and has also been hit by cuts to its local council grant and Arts Council England funding.

Roberts said: “In spite of this Paul keeps a positive attitude, helps us to think round obstacles and keeps encouraging us in an atmosphere that could very easily make us give up in despair.”

Among other winners at the ceremony was Northumberland Theatre Company – which last year lost all of its core funding from ACE.

The company’s artistic director, Gillian Hambleton, said the award would help her “to go on and to persevere and to move forward and to keep at it”. She added: “I will keep on fighting as it is too important to lose.”

Other recipients were Mandy Fenton, of Equal Writes; Juliet Forster, who is an associate director at the York Theatre Royal, and director and dramaturg Bill Hopkinson.

The awards were created by playwright Mark Ravenhill for the purpose of giving guild members the chance to “thank publicly those who have given them a particularly positive experience in new writing over the previous year”.