Actors have expressed concern about dwindling work opportunities at five theatres in the North West, including Oldham Coliseum and Liverpool’s Everyman.
Funding cuts as well as “theatre mismanagement” were cited as among the causes for reduced output at the venues, which also included the Dukes in Lancaster, Theatre by the Lake in Keswick and Manchester’s Home.
Equity is now launching a campaign to address the issue following a motion passed at the union’s Annual Representative Conference 2019.
The motion states: “The ARC notes with alarm the parlous state of some North West regional producing theatres, [in terms of] their finances, production output and/or impacts of their management/board decisions.”
Proposing the motion, Wright Harlow of Equity’s North Lancashire and Cumbria General Branch said: “Obviously it’s very easy to blame austerity on these and other theatres’ woes, and clearly the massive amount of funding starvation has had an impact, but theatre mismanagement has also contributed to the problems.”
He added: “It’s not just theatres in the north that are suffering, although austerity hits the north disproportionately, but ultimately it’s a national issue brought about by flawed political decisions.
“A reduction in shows produced in the North West and elsewhere means local actors and creatives have fewer opportunities for work, a cause for otherwise talented local people to leave the industry.”
Harlow explained why each of the five theatres had been noted as examples, with the Dukes coming under fire for a change of leadership structure following several years of funding cuts.
“Five staff left this spring, including the recently appointed artistic director [Sarah Punshon], and the chief executive left in February,” Harlow said.
He said the board was now advertising for a joint chief executive and artistic director, having “abandoned that model two years previously”.
“The only show planned in the next year is a Christmas show in the studio space. One wonders exactly what this new artistic director/chief executive is going to be directing or managing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harlow said Theatre by the Lake had suffered “substantial losses” during the last two years of the tenure of former artistic director and chief executive Conrad Lynch, who he said walked out “due to disagreements with the board”.
Harlow added that this had a direct impact on the number of weeks available for acting work at the venue, especially in the summer season.
Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre was cited for the cancellation of its rep company model after two years due to financial difficulties. In December last year, the venue requested to be removed from Arts Council England’s national portfolio as it reviewed its business model.
Manchester’s Home was accused of having “a drastic reduction of in-house productions”, while Harlow said that Oldham Coliseum had recently seen the resignation of its artistic director Kevin Shaw, following the cancellation of a long-planned new theatre space.
Equity’s campaign may include a summit for North West-based producing theatres as well as representations to Arts Council England, individual theatre boards and local authorities.
The Dukes is currently restructuring its model to ensure the theatre “survives and thrives into the future”.
A spokesman said: “This will see a reduction in producing output, commensurate with our current funding levels, but we have extended the run of our Christmas production and will be bringing back our renowned outdoor show in Williamson Park from next year.
“We feel passionately that the North West needs production capacity to serve its population and welcome further support from Equity and its members to enable conversation, skill development and new models of working.”
A statement from the theatre said:
“Theatre by the Lake does not recognise the description that it is in a ‘parlous state’. The theatre is seeing the highest level of advance ticket sales for its summer season in 10 years and enjoyed a sell-out spring season. During 2019 it will stage 10 TBTL shows (the highest number since 2005).
“With regards to actor hours, TBTL has achieved annual actor weeks throughout this period in excess of 2015/16 levels by a minimum of 100 actor weeks, with an exceptional peak in 2017/18. In addition, co-productions/transfers undertaken spanning the last two financial years generated a further 104 actor weeks in partner venues. This trend looks set to continue into 2019.
“We are hugely excited about the recent appointment of artistic director Liz Stevenson, who will work in partnership with James Cobbold, who has led the organisation as chief executive since September 2018. We welcome any initiatives that contribute to the success of arts venues in the North West, or elsewhere, given the challenging environment that venues currently face.”
Interim chief executive Fiona Gibson said: “Theatres continually evolve and adapt to the changing landscape in which they operate and the innovation of the company was a bold experiment.
“However, we underestimated the strain on our resources and, to ensure future sustainability, needed to review our business model.
“With thanks to Arts Council England and Liverpool City Council, we have space to continue delivering our programme of change and playing a significant role in North West theatre.”
Executive director Jon Gilchrist told The Stage that Home is “financially robust and thriving artistically”.
He said: “Since opening in 2015 we have increased turnover, grown audience numbers, and last year presented 61% more performances in our theatres.
“While 2019 has fewer Home-produced shows than previous years, this is a conscious strategic decision as we increase our investment supporting artists to develop new projects for future years.
“In-house productions, made in Manchester, remain at the heart of our strategy and will increase in 2020 and beyond.
“We do, however, acknowledge there are challenges in the region, and we’ll continue to work with our fellow venues and Equity to help theatre prosper.”
Interim chief executive Susan Wildman said that the departure of former chief executive Kevin Shaw was not related to the cancellation of the new theatre space.
Wildman added: “The decision, which we understood the reasons for, not to go ahead with the proposed new Coliseum was made by Oldham Council. Unfortunately, news of Kevin Shaw’s resignation made the press in the same week, but was completely unrelated.
“We continue to work with our partners at Oldham Council and Arts Council England on plans for a new performance space in the town.”