Theatres outside London will be needed more than ever as the country recovers from the coronavirus crisis and must be protected as they fight to survive, a new report claims.
It argues that theatres in England have responded to the challenges posed by austerity and years of funding cuts, going on to increase their artistic, social and economic impact on their communities and the nation, which should be recognised by government.
Commissioned by 13 of England’s leading producing theatres, the report – completed before the Covid-19 pandemic – tracked the organisations over a five-year period, to analyse the effects of an unprecedented decline in public spending.
It found that despite “massive” cuts in grants to theatres, regional producing venues are “doing more than ever to make a difference in the artistic and broader communities they serve”.
Theatres represented in the report include the Royal Exchange in Manchester, Bristol Old Vic, Sheffield Theatres, Leicester’s Curve and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, which has since fallen into administration as a result of the pandemic.
The report, entitled Adaptation, covers the period between 2012/13 and 2017/18, which came during 10 years of cuts to public subsidy for the arts.
The most recent Arts Index, published this month, found that government funding for the arts declined by 35% between 2007 and 2018, with local government funding dropping by 43%.
Arts Council England funding now equates to about 18% of theatres’ total income, the Adaptation report found, putting increased importance on earned income from ticket sales.
“Rather than retrenching, the theatres in this study have responded ambitiously and innovatively to the financial challenges they have faced... All have worked to re-invent their business models to increase their impact and keep them sustainable in turbulent times,” it says.
Cumulatively, the 13 theatres achieved a 7% rise in ticket sales over the five-year period and a 20% real-terms increase in overall income, while also growing and diversifying audiences.
“What happens on stage remains of vital importance to our producing theatres,” the report says, but it concludes that theatres now also play “myriad different roles” in their communities.
“They are a partner and a leader in their broader artistic communities. They are major civic organisations working to improve places and lives. They are supporters and facilitators of talented artists and companies. They are major providers of education services in schools. They are increasingly providers of services to an ageing population. They change lives and they make lives worth living,” it says.
The report, authored by consultant and former UK Theatre executive director David Brownlee, adds that there is a “bitter irony” in that the industry’s creative and entrepreneurial response to funding cuts is what makes it so vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis.
The report also found:
In an addendum to the original report, Brownlee says the theatre sector’s future could be “extremely bleak”, but that he hopes the report’s findings prove that regional theatres are an “irreplaceable asset” and are able not only to adapt to challenges, but to increase their impact.
“When the theatre sector in England asks for significant support to sustain it through the crisis, the government needs to be reminded not only of the amazing outcomes the sector delivers for communities and the nation as a whole but also the incredible value returned for every pound invested in normal times,” he says.
Despite the growth, the report also records the cost of austerity. Changes in the sector have included an increased reliance on co-productions and need for commercial partners, reduced work with schools, reduced ability to take risks in programming and an emphasis on programming recognisable titles, fewer main stage opportunities for emerging creatives and cuts to the number of permanently employed staff.
The other theatres analysed in the report are Leeds Playhouse, Northern Stage, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and Chichester Festival Theatre.