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Matt Trueman: We need new theatres, even if the old ones aren’t full

In the Heights wouldn't have survived at West End rates. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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London had 241 theatres in 2014 – a total capacity of 110,000 seats. It’s getting lots more. Some permanent, some temporary. Some large-scale, some small. Some central, some on the city’s edges – from Streatham Theatre down south to Soho Walthamstow up north. There are whispers of more.

Does the capital need them? Two recent blogs – by producer Jake Orr and critic Mark Shenton – have argued not. London, Orr writes, is already “bursting at the seams with cultural opportunities”. It’s believed to be the biggest theatre city in the world.

Both provide sensible arguments against. Our theatres aren’t at capacity. Some are stretched. On the fringe, producers rarely budget for more than 40%. Small-scale venues run the risk of invisibility – particularly, as Shenton points out, with Time Out scaling back coverage. Orr calls for deeper engagement with audiences, not short-term opportunism.

Then there’s money: competition for funding, investors, philanthropists; additional administrators; low-pay/no-pay productions. With more theatres, there’s the increased chance that some will close – either new ones folding or old ones going under.

None of that’s wrong, but it’s not how things work. New theatres don’t spring up in a vacuum, nor are they part of a single plan. They’re built because someone sees an opportunity or a need. Call me a filthy free-market capitalist, but in London, we have both right now (pending Brexit, of course).

Competition for West End theatres is high, with productions and transfers backed up like aeroplanes waiting for a new runway. Good, old-fashioned supply and demand means hire costs are higher than ever – prohibitively so, in some cases. Theatre owners are doing well and others want in. That’s no bad thing. You could argue that a kind of monopoly exists – or, at least, an exclusive economic zone.

New theatres give producers options. Rather than going to town with its all-female Shakespeares, the Donmar’s temporary tent-theatre – cheaper, with fewer seats decreasing risk – has allowed it to offer 20% of tickets free to young audiences. In the Heights wouldn’t have survived a year at West End rates. Demand suits suppliers. In five years, the Park has become a £2 million business, doubling its income year on year.

There are spatial issues, too. Modern productions sit oddly behind old prosceniums. They look distant and flat, lit from the front. Those 1,000-plus seaters are hard to fill. More than any other art form, theatre is defined by its architecture. New studio spaces and thrust stages will serve the work better. The West End needs preserving, but, just as two decades of capital funding has served subsidised theatre well, investment will do the same elsewhere. Better work will mean better returns.

Theatre changes. As audiences and production models evolve, theatre’s architecture has to adapt. We might not need more theatres, but we do need new ones.

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