Ayckbourn warns funding ‘drain’ is threatening new writing in the regions

Alan Ayckbourn. Photo: Tony Bartholomew.
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Regional venues are no longer able to stage new and risky works to the same extent that they used to, Alan Ayckbourn has warned, claiming that funding has “drained” back to London.

The writer, whose 78th play will premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough this summer, said more financial investment was needed outside London to restore the regions as a training ground for new writers.

He said: “[With] these very new, first-time writers the risks are very high. You need to have patience with new writers. It’s all a learning curve, and the regions were traditionally where these things grew.”

He added: “With the brilliance of [former arts minster] Jennie Lee starting the arts council, one of the things she said was, ‘Theatre and the arts is much too London-based, let’s get it out into the country’. But it’s slowly all draining back [to London] again.”

Ayckbourn said that when he began his career, regional venues were used to try out new works before commercial producers would take them on.

The playwright, who was artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 1972 to 2009, said: “We were very proud in the regions. Willy Russell and I used to meet and congratulate each other from either sides of the country – he from Liverpool and I from Scarborough. We did well. We served London well from what we were doing in Scarborough. Make no mistake of it, Scarborough and Liverpool took the risks.”

However, Ayckbourn said this was not possible now. Speaking about the current need for investment in regional venues, he said in the past he had argued with arts minsters for more money outside the capital.

“I have over the years met with three different arts ministers and we’ve all had the same conversation. Three times I said, ‘Give us the money and we’ll give you the work’,” he said.

He added: “You have to back your choices. Because if you’re backing a guy in, say, Pickering and you’ve put a lot of money into his three years and still nothing comes out of it then it’s probably sensible to take it back. But if the guy in Pickering starts producing brilliant work, just keep encouraging it forward.”