Clothworkers’ Dramatic Arts Programme

English Touring Theatre's Rachel Tackley, who is co-prodiucing Arcadia. Photo: Stephanie Methven
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Just as regional theatres are bracing themselves for the Arts Council’s funding pronouncement at the beginning of July, and as they continue to unpick the theatre production tax breaks announced in the Budget that are far less straight forward than they at first seemed, out of left field an extraordinary new source of funding is announced: a £1.25m development programme from an entirely unexpected source.

This weekend the Clothworkers’ Foundation has announced an annual award (to run over five years) of £150,000 to a regional producing theatre in England. The money can be used for building work or for production, but it must be a specific purpose and the money cannot be added to general funds. “The Trustees (of the foundation) will take into account the applicant’s achievements… as well as the strength of the project proposal” the announcement says.

The Clothworkers’ Company is one of London’s younger livery companies, being less than 600 years old, and created to secure the welfare of the cloth industry. The company created its charitable foundation in 1977 and since then it has given away more than £100m, its emphasis being mostly on capital projects benefitting the disabled, disadvantaged young, the elderly, the victims of domestic violence, recovering addicts and so on. Theatre has never appeared in its portfolio before.

The key is a partnership with the newly named UK Theatre, formerly the Theatre Management Association, the regional twin of the West End’s Society of London Theatre. The first winner will be announced at the UK Theatre Awards in October, and we already know who is in the running for the first one. The award is open to members of UK Theatre, of course, and the South West is the first of five regions to benefit. Four venues have been invited to apply: Bristol Old Vic, Cheltenham Everyman, Plymouth Theatre Royal and Salisbury Playhouse. In a carve-up of the country apparently to do with where the producing theatres are, and there aren’t that many any more, Yorkshire will be the region for 2015, the North East and North West, East and West Midlands, and finally the East and South East (taking in the South as well). London playhouses, naturally, need not apply. That accounts for £750,000 of the Clothworkers’ Dramatic Arts Programme, the rest is for students to have places at drama school or for theatre studies at technical institutions but can’t afford to accept an offered place.

It is, of course, limited to UK Theatre member's theatres, but they are all influential and will be encouraged, I’m sure, to put forward schemes that will benefit audiences and their regions rather than ease their own financial burdens.

Meanwhile, in another part of the theatre firmament, Cameron Mackintosh is to acquire two more West End theatres, the Victoria Palace and the Ambassadors from Stephen Whaley-Cohen, which looks like more good news for regional theatre.

Mackintosh’s deal with Whaley-Cohen is not merely a shift in ownership within the most famous theatrical square mile in the world, it is a shift in the deadlock over the funding of the urgently needed upgrading of the West End’s largely Victorian and unfit for 21st century purpose buildings. Mackintosh – who brings his ownership of West End theatres to nine with these two – will close the 1,500-seat Victoria for a year, presumably after Billy Elliott has run its course, extending the stage and enlarging the front of house without compromising the Frank Matcham architecture. At the much more intimate Ambassadors, seating less than 450, Mackintosh will rename it after his old friend Stephen Sondheim and turn it into the transfer house he has always wanted, the theatre that will be "primarily for seasons of exciting productions from theatres in the subsidised sector seeking a non-proscenium environment that mirrors their own stages” he said.

So some of the new pieces being spawned thanks to the Clothworkers will have a showcase for the international audiences of London. Call it partnership if you like, looks like a bit of common sense at last with the private money joining its thinking up with the public sector.