The regions are the lifeblood of British theatre
Congratulations to West End theatres which seemed to have turned what many expected to be a disastrous year in 2012 into a bumper one – not as good as the record of 2009, but close and this year might well get closer. As Julian Bird, the chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, sees it, it’s thanks to the extraordinary quality of straight plays currently on offer – audiences for them up 9% compared with a drop of 3% for musicals - and a restrained ticketing policy which has actually seen a slight reduction in average pricing.
But this is Mark Shenton’s manor, I won’t trespass, and the truth is that while 2012 was good in London, 2013 is not promising well outside in the regions.
The cash flow stoppage has made The Byre in St Andrews – local authority owned - go dark, ACE confirms more cuts this year and next which will assail regional operations worst, and Newcastle seems determined to cut all its arts funding. And all that is before the government announces its next comprehensive spending review due this year, nobody believes there is going to be good news in that, taking the bad times to at least 2018.
[pullquote]The West End will suffer, eventually, because the commercial theatre in this country relies wholly on the talent trained in the subsidised theatre and at least greatly on the plays found[/pullquote]
The new arts council framework has now been announced, necessitated by the government insisting on a 50% cut to ACE’s own operation on top of everything else. “We will do things less, but we will do them differently," chief exec Alan Davey said bravely. The magnitude of that cut has meant a complete rethink of how ACE works in order to deliver as much as possible of what it has been delivering, and we’ll see how it works out.
But both Julian Bird, as head of the Theatrical Management Association for regional theatres as well as SOLT, and Davey have the local regional situation uppermost in their minds. The TMA, Equity, The Stage and the programme publisher John Good are going to announce a joint campaign on behalf of regional theatres in March.
So how bad is it? In Newcastle Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliott and Pitman Painters which have made millions for this country, says that Newcastle’s decision will mean that there can be no more Lee Halls, no taught drama at school, no haunting of public libraries in Novocastrians’ time off, no imbibing of the great plays. The West End will suffer, eventually, because the commercial theatre in this country relies wholly on the talent trained in the subsidised theatre and at least greatly on the plays found in the regions.
Hall might be right, but Anthony Sargent across the Tyne at the Sage says this his local authority, Gateshead, which gave us his concert centre, the Baltic and the Angel of North, is not planning such Armageddon because they don’t believe that culture is quite so dispensible. There might be 30% cuts there, carefully placed to dull the pain as much as possible. He is among those who think that Newcastle is making an over-elaborate gesture, and there is a view that a 50% cut could have the same publicity effect without destroying the cultural infrastructure Newcastle City Council as seems prepared to do.
Across the board, there will be a patchwork of responses by councils, but there will be at least 20% cuts from them on average and more Byres of various sorts and dimensions will undoubtedly close.
But as the artistic director of one subsidised touring company told me, making plays is what they do, and as long as there is the talent – in which we are rich – and the ingenuity, plays will be made, performed and enjoyed, even if they’re on street corners. “This is not about money,” he told me. “This is about art.”