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Subsidised sector essential to commercial theatre – ACE report

The report suggests subsidised productions such as the National Theatre's Everyman starring Chiwetel Ejiofor help support commercial theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton The report suggests subsidised productions such as the National Theatre's Everyman starring Chiwetel Ejiofor help support commercial theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Commercial theatre could not exist in its current “variety, character and overall financial strength” without the subsidised sector, a new report from Arts Council England claims.

It states that public and private investment in theatre are so interlinked that “any notion of there simply being a ‘commercial’ or ‘subsidised’ theatre is misleading”.

Subsidy of theatres through national arts councils and local authorities amounts to £364 million, according to an analysis of recent yearly figures. The report shows that this public funding forms 14% of the total UK theatre economy (£2.6 billion), which combines both public subsidy and commercial revenue.

The estimates are taken from ACE’s report The Interdependence of Public and Private Finance in British Theatre, which states that while subsidies make up the smaller portion of overall financial turnover in the sector, “indirectly they support nearly every part of British theatre”.

It continues: “What results is a complex structure of interdependent parts in which each, whether small or large, is active and essential to its whole function.”

Analysis in the report suggests that both presenting and receiving theatres – which together make up the majority of venues – benefit both from direct subsidy, and the subsidies paid to producing companies who stage work in them.

According to report author Stephen Hetherington, who chairs HQ Theatres, this means it is “all but impossible for any producer or venue operator to claim they do not benefit from subsidy, and totally impossible for public sector operators to separate themselves from private finance”.

While the report stops short of saying the whole theatre industry depends on subsidy, it concludes that “the continuation of its present size, variety, character, and overall financial strength most certainly does”.

Commercial sector analysis

Analysis of recent sales data suggests that, of the £2.2 billion income in the commercial sector, ticket sales make up 91% (£2.1 billion), while private financial investment in productions contributes just 3% (£70 million).

The remaining 6% (£140 million) of commercial income is from catering and bar sales at theatre venues.

Interviews with senior theatre figures cited in the report reveal some commercial companies believe their work would “continue or perhaps prosper” if all public theatre funding was removed.

Subsidised sector analysis

Theatre in the UK is currently subsidised with about £364 million per year, according to the report.

Figures in the report suggest that three quarters of this comes from national public funding bodies: Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales and Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The report estimates that a quarter of all public theatre funding comes from local government.

All theatres interviewed for the report which received subsidy describe it as “essential” to their operation.


Hetherington said he was motivated to compile the report because media articles on the health of British theatre “consistently presume it to be entirely about subsidy”.

He continued: “From professional experience, I know this to be a profound distortion, seeming to ignore our long theatre history as well as the realities of creating and presenting theatre in Britain today”.

Senior figures from 31 companies and bodies provided evidence for the report, including the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Nimax Theatres and Cameron Mackintosh Ltd.

A full list of organisations interviewed can be found in the report, which is available to read on the ACE website.

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