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Short Shorts 82: Placing an economic value on the arts, previews and photography

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller
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The economic value of the arts and its cabinet minister

On Wednesday, the government’s culture secretary Maria Miller, a former marketing and advertising executive appointed to the cabinet last September, made her first public speech on the arts in which she set out her stall that public investment in them needed to be paid off by returning healthy dividends back to the economy.

“When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact,” she told an audience at the British Museum on Wednesday. Arts organisations, she went on, had to “demonstrate the healthy dividends that our investment continues to pay”.

I wonder if our public investment in cabinet ministers should be subject to similar scrutiny of just how healthy the dividends are in terms of how much we get in return for their salaries. It seems a bit rich (or rather extremely poor) that it has taken her seven months to get around to talking about one of the key subjects in her portfolio. But then Maria Miller famously took a long time to speak to any of her ‘subjects’ face-to-face, engaging more with me on Twitter last November than she had with any of them up to then.

There can hardly be a better example of that fact than the National Theatre, which is our single most prolific and successful subsidised theatre with four shows currently running in the West End alone. But as Nicholas Hytner, its director, pointed out in reply to Miller, “She seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of. Cutting what produces growth seems to me to be not good policy in arts.”

The National’s own rolling successes always begin at home, namely their South Bank cultural factory that has an uncanny knack for turning out hit after hit. And three new productions that opened in the last fortnight alone demonstrate perfectly the range of that work, from a Shakespearean classic to a European rediscovery and a terrific brand-new play.

Hytner, of course, has recently announced his intention to step down from running the National in 2015, where his many accomplishments have included a brilliant contemporary approach to Shakespeare that have brought plays from Henry V to Hamlet into the here and now. Earlier this week, as I reported just yesterday, he was reunited with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, who respectively played the title roles in those two plays, for a bracing new production of Othello. Performed with a spellbinding immediacy that takes the action from a modern war room to a military camp, this has instantly become one of the theatre events of the year.

Meanwhile the mission of the National is also to do the plays that no one else can, and I also caught up with Howard Davies’s expansive production of Gorky’s Children of the Sun in this week, where Davies (always the NT’s secret weapon of true invention) and adaptor Andrew Upton are reunited for their fourth Russian play at the National to find unexpected theatrical treasure.

And Tanya Ronder’s Table, inaugurating the new temporary Shed space that I’ve already been less than welcoming to that has been expensively bolted onto the front of the National as the building undergoes a £70m revamp, is nevertheless an appropriate choice – just as the NT faces a new future, so do its characters. And as Susannah Clapp pointed out, too, in her Observer review, the play belongs in the space, “not least because the Shed itself is shaped like an upside-down table.”

Committing to lower prices

On Tuesday it was officially announced that a long talked-of new stage version of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments will begin performances at the West End’s Palace Theatre in September. But for all the talk of its young talent, most of whom are under 21 and several of whom came from open audition, I was most excited by two lines in the press release: “All tickets for preview performances will be half price – genuine preview prices. A tradition not seen in the West End for nearly 25 years.”

It used to be that preview pricing used to acknowledge that the production was being seen in a state that wasn’t necessarily at its best state of preparedness – and audiences would be part of the process of helping to get it ready. But previews now routinely mean a modest £5 or £10 discount, if that, in the UK, while on Broadway official preview reductions have disappeared entirely.

Instead, myriad (and confusing) discount offers now appear instead to try lure people in. But a genuine, upfront offer like this will not only help to get audiences in when they’re most needed to help shape the show itself, but also help in its promotion (assuming the show is good), which is to start the most crucial thing of all: word-of-mouth. It’s a win-win situation for audiences and producers alike.

A living theatrical archivist

Theatre, as we know only too well, is ephemeral; but there is a permanent record, of sorts, at least of who saw a show begin its life in the parallel world of celebrity snaps of those who attended the first night and helped to create a buzz around it. Michael Riedel, writing in advance of the Broadway opening of Motown a few weeks ago, noted that he suspected that

the reviews are going to be swamped by upbeat media coverage of Sunday night’s opening. The guest list reads like the Songwriters Hall of Fame, albeit the ’60s and ’70s wings: Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Barry Manilow, David Geffen, Aretha Franklin and, that diva of divas herself — Ross, “The Boss.”

He was right – and here’s the Variety story to prove it.

But as the photocaptions to the pictures that accompany that Variety show, the Boss may not be Ross but Bruce Glikas, Broadway’s premiere photographer both of and to the stars.

And this week Variety went one stage further, filing a piece about Bruce himself. I should declare an interest here that he is one of my best friends on Broadway, and indeed he came straight from the Red Carpet of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre that night to join me at the Edison’s Polish tea rooms on my last night in town, in tow with NY1’s Broadway reporter Frank DiLella who had also been covering the opening.

As Variety reports,

When Tom Hanks saw Bruce Glikas at the Broadway opening of Lucky Guy, he shouted out, ‘It’s the busiest working man in show business!” “It’s not true,” says the photographer, who’s on the red carpet almost every night of the year documenting every legit event in Gotham. “But Hanks said that in front of my best friend from high school. What more do you want?!”

Nowadays, of course, just as everyone is a critic (or at least has an opinion), everyone is a photographer (or at least takes a snap). “Sometimes,” Bruce says, “I can’t see in front of me because of the cell phones. Did I miss something or did Barbra Streisand just enter this room?”

But Bruce gets something that most people with their iPhones don’t: most nights he also has to go backstage at one show or another (or two or more on the same night) to shoot the show’s stars with the celebrities that have come to see them. He is on the frontline, recording a bit of Broadway’s nightly history.

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