Our theatres must not be soft targets

Samuel West in Enron at the Minerva, Chichester in 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Our local theatres are facing a perfect storm: Arts Council England cuts, falling business sponsorship and local authorities who see the arts as an easy target. Well, they’re not going to be an easy target any more.

I love the UK’s local theatres, and I’ve done well out of them. I made my professional stage debut at Birmingham Rep in 1985. I’ve directed at Bristol, and Newcastle. I’ve done seven plays at Chichester, two as director. I was artistic director at Sheffield. Selfishly, it concerns me. But that’s not why I wrote this.

Here’s what’s happening: local government cuts are disproportionately hitting our cities, where most of the theatres are. In 2010, Somerset announced the first 100% arts funding cut. But for every citizen who was relieved they didn’t live there, there were ten city councillors thinking “we could do a Somerset”. And now the disease seems to be spreading. Newcastle, Westminster – where next?

[pullquote]The public don't know 145 of the 187 British Oscar nominees began in subsidised theatre. They don’t know that we are a profitable industry. That we help pay for hospital beds. That cuts to this sector are not savings, they are losses.[/pullquote]

Sheffield Theatres is facing a council cut of £100,000, just weeks after being named regional theatre of the year at the The Stage 100 Awards. Westminster has an arts budget of £350,000 – just 0.04% of its total spend. They want to cut all of it. At the same time, they’re appointing a £125,000 communications director to join a £90,000 deputy head of communications and a head of media relations on £82,000. Council leaders justify these ‘difficult decisions’ by saying it’s either the arts or meals-on-wheels. Philosophers call this a false dichotomy. Everyone else calls it nonsense. We know that money won’t go to meals-on-wheels or hip replacements. What it is really, is false economy. Some of Westminster’s money supports English National Ballet’s dance programmes for older people. If more old people danced, they wouldn’t need so many hip replacements.

Councils such as Westminster are facing cuts of around 3% and instead of passing them on fairly, are cutting the arts budget completely. Why? Because they see arts funding as a gift, and art as an add-on. Because they believe that in the absence of investment, art will happen anyway. Some may, but most won’t.

We have to find new ways to engage the public with the value of art and culture. So here’s one: listen to your audience. Get every theatre in the country to talk to its public, and get those audiences to shout loud for an excellent, affordable night out. Turn your audience into advocates. Through articles, postcards, curtain speeches, build a movement and a database; hundreds of grassroots champions every theatre can call on to say how that theatre has changed their lives. Friends organisations, volunteers, even people who just like the cafe. So that by the next round of funding, theatre staff can sit down with local councillors and a big pile of postcards and say “we matter”.

This is the My Theatre Matters! campaign. It’s running throughout 2013, with a crescendo in early autumn when councils start to discuss 2014 budgets. We know that audiences love their theatres. We just have to get them to say so. It’s important that this campaign isn’t about artists. It’s about audiences; about the electorate; about community. Arts venues don’t just make culture for those who attend – they also make opportunities and employment for those who don’t traditionally engage with the arts.

Readers of The Stage know how theatre works, but audiences on the whole don’t, and this is where we need your help. There are very simple messages. People just don’t know that their theatres receive government investment, and that their taxes allow theatres to keep tickets cheap (when we did Fiddler on the Roof at the Crucible, the top tickets cost one-third of what they were when it transferred to the West End, without subsidy). They don’t know that the people who write or star in the soaps they watch started in fringe, or that 145 of the 187 British Oscar nominees began in subsidised theatre. They don’t know that we are a profitable industry. That we help pay for hospital beds. That cuts to this sector are not savings, they are losses.

We must trumpet the economic benefits of a thriving theatre and how culture can revitalise a tired city centre. But we must also talk of civic pride, of happiness, of the intellectual thrill, the camaraderie – even the tears – that a good night out can give. We aren’t here just to work our asses off for 50 years then die.

Lee Hall said not to count the economic value of culture in Newcastle was “fiscally dishonest and illiterate”. After a magnificent local campaign the 100% cut there has been halved – although a 50% reduction is still very serious. One of the forces brought to bear was local industrialists, who reminded the council that they would think twice about investing in a cultural desert.

Our local theatres are an indispensable part of people becoming who they are. If we don’t get behind this campaign to save them, we will turn round in a few years time to ask “Where have they gone?”. And by then, it will be too late.

Samuel West is an Equity councillor and chair of the National Campaign for the Arts