We must cherish regional theatre

Alistair Smith
Alistair Smith is editor of The Stage. Having joined the publication on staff in 2004, he has also held the roles of reporter, news editor, opinion editor, deputy editor and print editor at The Stage and has written for publications ranging from The Guardian to Hello! Magazine. He is also the author of two major industry reports (the London Theatre Report and the Theatre Workforce Review) and a founder of the My Theatre Matters! campaign.
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I spent the Sunday just gone in the remarkable surroundings of London's Guildhall at this year's Theatre Awards UK.

Sometimes referred to as the 'regional version of the Olivier Awards', the event (formerly known as the TMA Theatre Awards) celebrates the best of theatre from producers and venues across Britain.

It's a fun event - one of my favourite dates in the theatrical diary, in fact. It might not be quite as glam as the Oliviers, but it seems to me to give a fuller flavour of what British theatre has to offer than it's more London-focused sibling. It is also a very welcome reminder that not all theatre in this country happens within a few square miles in the centre of London.

TMA president Rachel Tackley, in her introductory speech at the awards, produced the figure that audiences of around 31 million visit theatre around the UK (excluding the West End) every year.

That is around the same number as (maybe even more than) the attendances at all professional football matches across the UK and it's more than double the number of people visiting the West End on an annual basis.

Most people get their first taste of theatre at a local venue - whether that's being dragged along to a Shakespeare production by their school or a Christmas panto with their family.

Regional theatres are the lifeblood of the theatre industry and, by extension, our entertainment industry. It's a commonplace observation that today's film and TV stars often first earned their spurs at the National or the RSC. But before that they probably had their first break in a regional theatre. Perhaps, they even discovered their love of performance while working as an usher at their local theatre for a holiday job.

[pullquote]Theatre outside London is currently facing its toughest conditions for quite some time[/pullquote]

But - as celebratory event as the awards were - last Sunday was also a reminder that theatre outside the capital is currently facing its toughest conditions for quite some time.

Outside the London bubble, the recession is hitting everyone much harder and this is is having a knock on effect on audiences across the UK. Meanwhile, funding from central government via the arts council has already been cut (with expectations that further cuts are on their way) while local government support is also being squeezed. Badly.

These are tough times. Speaking after the event, TMA chief executive Julian Bird observed: "It's great to see a list of nominees that is very broadly spread in all parts of the UK. That's what's exciting - but that's what's at risk."

It reminded me of a similar observation that actor Timothy West had made to me the previous weekend.

The thing I miss is that when we go on tour with a show like this, it’s what has come to be known in the profession as the ‘Harvey Nichols tour’ – you go to comfortable places, not too far away, such as Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, Guildford, Richmond, Bath. All lovely theatres, but I long for the rugged, northern, bigger theatres that we always used to go to with drama – Newcastle, Liverpool Empire, the Leeds Grand – all these wonderful theatres that were a joy to play. But now those theatres only host opera, musicals, one-nighters and stand-up comedy.

Already the scope and scale of regional theatre has narrowed. It's crucial that we don't allow it to narrow any further.