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Theatre 2016: day two round-up

Theatre 2016 conference in May. Photo: Alex Brenner Theatre 2016 conference in May. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Theatre 2016 – billed as the largest ever UK-wide theatre conference – continued today (May 13) at the Piccadilly Theatre,  with sessions and debates also running at the Lyric and Arts theatres in London throughout the afternoon.

In the morning, delegates voted to scrap all of the previous day’s motions, and not to continue with the ones listed for today, following complaints they had been drawn up without input from attendees.

The morning session was supposed to be chaired by Rosemary Squire, however she was unable to attend due to illness. Topher Campbell stood in, and used his opening speech to call for an end to artistic directors.

Delegates also heard from Clive Humby, from Starcount, about what the sector can learn from the passions of theatregoers outside of the arts, while Royal Court community producer Chris Sonnex talked about the Good Chance Theatre in Calais, and how that had made a difference to the lives of refugees in the camp.

The afternoon was split into three strands, as below:

Strand four – Piccadilly Theatre

Jill Robinson, chief executive of TRG Arts talked about how theatres can monetise relationships with theatregoers, with Ali FitzGibbon, a freelance arts consultant, also talked about different ways of operating.

The afternoon continued with Pontio’s Elen ap Robert and Gareth Roberts, from Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s Gareth Roberts talking about the relationships they have with universities, the benefits and challenges. Robert, speaking about Pontio, talked about the delays the venue had suffered during construction, resulting in its entire first season being cancelled.

Samuel West used his speech to address delegates about the challenges facing the sector in terms of funding, and access. He criticised theatres for charging too much for drinks and programmes, claiming theatre “isn’t Ryanair”.

In a panel discussion, West later expressed concern about funding from local authorities being reduced. He said the Arts Council could not be the only “funder in town”. On the same panel, ITC’s Charlotte Jones said she had a problem with too much public funding going to big organisations such as the Royal Opera House, saying the public was funding “corporate entertainment”. She said more needed to be done to support theatre in deprived areas, and praised councils as “unsung heroes” who still give money to ITC’s members.

Strand five – Lyric Theatre

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland head of drama Maggie Kinloch discussed whether audiences saw themselves on national stages – and concluded that they don’t, yet. She highlighted the need to break the hold of white, male, middle-class and able-bodied men on the most powerful roles in theatre, and said there was nothing “inevitable” about a decline in theatre if organisations move to act on improving the representation of minorities and local communities.

Data presented by The Audience Agency’s Anne Torreggiani showed that around 40% of UK households currently attend theatre, but only 15% go twice a year or more. She also revealed that theatre was doing much worse than other art forms at attracting non-white audiences. Predicting the theatre landscape in 10 years’ time based on her data, she suggested the average age of theatregoers would be older and theatres would be struggling to attract attendees from Generation X and Y.

Steven Hadley, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, argued a large amount of theatre and other artforms were currently failing to reach broad enough audiences, and therefore – as undemocratic organisations – they should not be receiving public funding.

Catherine Wheels director Gill Robertson criticised the bulk of theatre that is presented in schools, saying most of it is “not good” when it should be “thrilling” in order to encourage children to see more.

Derby Theatre director Sarah Brigham made a passionate interjection at the suggestion that regional theatres could join in with the West End’s Kids Week promotion. Hitting out at the “patronising” and “London-centric” suggestion, she named a number of schemes that regional theatres are already involved in to encourage children and families to attend theatre.

Strand six – Arts Theatre

Chair Ruth Eastwood, CEO of the Blackpool Grand, responding to points made in the morning session, began by saying: “Refugees are people with real challenges. It’s complicated. Tread with care.”

Roland Smith of Theatre Delicatessen spoke about pop-up theatre models and using found spaces, and the importance of access before stressing that he hoped “we’re the last people to use this model. Artists and communities deserve better.”

David Lockwood of the Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter, spoke about the new venues that were opening in the city and the lessons that could be learnt from troubles faced by the Northcott Theatre, concluding that “sometimes you need to let things go.”

This was followed by a panel discussion entitled How Do We Afford Relevant and Accessible Places and Spaces in Our Changing Communities?

Matt Fenton, artistic director of Contact, and Foluso Falade, a member of Contact’s Young Company, spoke about the importance of thinking about who makes the decisions in a building. “If you’re collectively diverse than your audience might be collectively diverse.” Falade added that she did not understand what theatre was before encountering Contact. “It’s a very open and happy place.”

Lucy Oliver-Harrison, executive director of the Yard in Hackney Wick, London discussed the challenges of setting up and maintaining a venue in an area experiencing “huge and rapid change,” concluding “at some point the Yard will cease to exist in its current form. We think this is good.”

Gavin Barlow, chief executive of the Albany, discussed the venue’s redevelopment and expansion, particularly in regards to Deptford Lounge and Canada Water Culture Space.

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, freelance director and theatre-maker and former co-director of theatre at Ovalhouse, reflecting on the panel, said “the most effective way to change a building is to change the people within it. Permeability is key.”

Jonathan Meth, Project Dramaturg on Crossing The Line, said “public space is in crisis, globally. It’s being diminished. Theatre has the possibility and responsibility to reconfigure what public space can be.”

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