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Sarah Frankcom: ‘Regional theatre is now bolder than ever’

Last week, Michael Billington’s concerns regarding regional theatre hit the headlines. At the launch of The Guardian theatre critic’s book (which I very much look forward to reading) he said he was worried that theatre outside of London was becoming a “shadow” of its former self. Reading his comments from my office in Manchester was very interesting, as beyond my door is a vibrant acting company in rehearsals, people administrating the reading of 1,938 scripts for our national Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, and our development and participation and learning teams planning many inspiring future projects.

A week ago we welcomed our new young company (130 members from across the north-west) into the building, and a few days later we launched a fresh initiative, Young Company Associates [1], creating even more ways for young people to get involved with, and help inform, what the theatre does.

We have just said goodbye to So Here We Are, our co-production of Luke Norris’ Bruntwood Prize-winning play, which will play HighTide in Suffolk before heading back at the end of September.

Don Warrington and Dona Croll in All My Sons at the Royal Exchange. Photo: Jonathan Keenan [2]
Don Warrington and Dona Croll in All My Sons at the Royal Exchange. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

As a company we constantly push to evolve ourselves and our work because we know our ‘regional’ audiences won’t accept anything less. In short, what exists here and in theatres across the UK is a level of activity that I know is delivered with passion and insight.

However, I do believe that Billington’s comments have ignited a welcome debate and that the “shadow” he sees is not actually about the work of non-London theatres, but the fading outline of an antiquated model we often refer to as ‘regional theatre’. As a concept it feels increasingly obsolete, eclipsed by a new forward-thinking theatre ecosystem that no longer defines itself in relation to the capital. Instead, theatre organisations are confidently expressing themselves both in terms of the city and community in which they stand and a national and international arts ecosystem.

This week we began our technical rehearsals for The Crucible, a modern classic that not only reflects 1950s America, but is also frighteningly prescient in today’s political landscape. We have not produced this iconic play since 1990 and one of the most talented and provocative directors of her generation, Caroline Steinbeis, has gathered a diverse cast of 19 actors to perform their vision of the piece. This is an opportunity to see the play for people who may find the London theatre scene inaccessible for a number of social, economic, and geographical reasons. And the play’s presence is not just felt on our stage – our participation and learning department is busy preparing and delivering Arthur Miller workshops in schools and colleges throughout Greater Manchester, teachers are engaging in related masterclasses within the theatre’s building, our elders company begins a new monthly panel discussion (Theatre Cafe) inspired by The Crucible’s political undertones, and more than 20 community leaders from our links project will join us for the show as we introduce them to our scheme of free and discounted tickets for their communities.

All of this makes for a rich and diverse audience. It is this distinctiveness that inspires and informs our development as an arts organisation based at the very heart of Manchester, and is precisely why the term ‘regional theatre’ seems reductive. Our audiences do not define themselves as ‘living outside of London’ – the cultural experiences they regularly have are here in Manchester, within their local communities and inside a building steeped in the history of their city. To be ‘regional’ is to be constantly deferring to another, and our audiences resolutely do not feel this way. I don’t pretend to speak for my artistic director colleagues in other Manchester venues, Walter Meierjohann (Home) and Matt Fenton (Contact), but think that they would both agree that the old concept of ‘regional theatre’ is redundant.

So I think it is fair to say that theatre outside London is broader and bolder than ever before. In the last financial year we have seen a 28% increase in attendance across the organisation, with 32,170 people attending new work. What I witness at the Royal Exchange, and what these figures back up, is that our audiences wants to support an extensive programme of work: classics, new writing, musicals and scratch performances.

As an organisation we are forever searching for the most inspiring stories that reflect our communities, and the wider world. I believe as an artistic director of a large cultural organisation it is my responsibility to create a platform where those stories can stimulate debate. So we commission and support local plays such as Scuttlers, a tale of Manchester gangs, or our co-production Pomona, a fantastical story set on a concrete island just outside our city centre. These plays sit with productions such as Anna Karenina, starring Ony Uhiara, and Chris Urch’s premiere of the Bruntwood Prize-winning The Rolling Stone, set in Uganda, both directed by Ellen McDougall and programmed to run in rep.

The Royal Exchange’s young company. Photo: Jonathan Keenan [3]
The Royal Exchange’s young company. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

All of these remarkably different stories about different groups are brought together in our theatre and reflect the vibrant cultural hub that is Manchester. Building on a rich and diverse heritage we continue to grow, nationally and internationally, and as a theatre we reflect that progression in the choices we make (see above). We no longer feel the need to look towards London for international diversity and artistic influence (as we may have done 20 years ago); we can find it on our own doorstep and establish worldwide connections ourselves and with others.

Co-productions are becoming increasingly popular, but I strongly believe that they allow for more creativity, not less. Billington suggests that finances are the driver for theatres teaming up, but very often economic necessity is not the case. Co-productions offer golden opportunities for arts organisations to pool ideas, ambitions and collateral, to create something they could not have done alone. Over the summer we worked with the Manchester International Festival to produce The Skriker, a multi-platform piece of theatre created here in Manchester. We look forward to co-producing Husbands and Sons with the National Theatre in the spring, and we are continuing our fruitful collaboration with Talawa next year and exploring exciting new projects with Graeae.

Yet the turbulent financial landscape cannot be ignored and Billington quite rightly references its “worrying” impact on the capacity of theatres outside of the capital to support the next generation of artists. We are finding it more challenging, yet we have found ways in which to continue to nurture new artists. Through initiatives like Open Exchange (a talent development project open to local artists which recently supported the brilliant Josh Coates to workshop a piece about depression) and the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, we support and champion a future cohort of creative people.

What I believe we have all been working towards organically is a more contemporary and useful ‘regional theatre’ model. I am lucky, I work in a city that has wholeheartedly embraced the importance of its cultural offering and whose communities have been encouraged to find their voice in the arts. For me, that is a very exciting place to make work.