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Mid-scale touring ‘near-unaffordable’, claims major Arts Council theatre report

Mid-scale touring has become “near-unaffordable” for theatres and producers, according to a major new Arts Council England report.

The Analysis of Theatre in England report claims there is a “dearth of attractive middle-scale” shows on offer to theatres because touring them is becoming increasingly challenging for producers. The report calls for the Arts Council to create a comprehensive national strategy for mid-scale touring.

In response, ACE has said it will look to offer fast-track grants to fund tours for popular shows by its national portfolio organisations. It is also considering investing in commercial tours, to help their producers guarantee against loss and therefore tour more extensively.

The report, undertaken by BOP Consulting and Graham Devlin Associates, collated data from a range of existing studies to take a comprehensive look at the theatre industry in England, including its economy, audience figures, and the geographical spread of theatres.

Mid-scale touring was found to be one of the principal challenges facing the sector, with the study reporting a “lack of affordable, quality touring product” that had “sufficient popular appeal” to bring in big audiences. Other challenges cited include pressure on budgets, tightened resources and a declining number of venues.

The report also warns the shift in the business models of subsidised theatres towards a greater reliance on box office income has resulted in less risk-taking and artistically ambitious work.

In its response, the Arts Council warned: “Such an approach presents a risk to the development of the art form and may, in the long term, raise questions about the value and purpose of public investment in theatre.”

The report also calls on national companies, such as the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, to tour more mid-scale work “to enable greater access to high-quality work and develop new audiences”.

A separate report released last week [1] found more than a third of theatre companies have seen an upsurge in their touring work over the past two years. But one in five said their touring work had decreased over the same period, while 42% said their output remained the same.

Responding to the new analysis of the industry, ACE floated the idea of investing in three major regional “producing hubs” around the UK.

These would consist of theatres, theatre companies, arts centres and festivals that would collaborate on, co-produce and tour work both within and outside their region.

Neil Darlison, director of theatre at Arts Council England, said the report painted a “relatively robust” picture of the theatre sector across the country.

“The report highlights how we could better distribute the work we fund. That’s particularly at producing theatres, where we’ve already contributed toward the work being made, but then it’s really difficult to get [the show] a further life. And there should be a way of doing that,” he said.

More than 80 representatives from subsidised and commercial theatre across the UK contributed towards the report. It also drew on 30 in-depth interviews with leading industry figures including National Theatre executive director Lisa Burger and Ambassador Theatre Group programming director Stuart Griffiths.