Barrie Rutter on leaving Northern Broadsides: ‘We were told that our 25 years’ work was irrelevant’
A figurehead of northern theatre, Barrie Rutter resigned from the pioneering touring company he founded a quarter-century ago. He explains why he’s had enough of underfunding and box-ticking
After a quarter of a century, I am to step away from Northern Broadsides. The company I set up in 1992 with one burning idea – to get Northern voices doing classical work in non-velvet spaces – is now one of the foremost touring theatre companies in the country. From next April it will go on without me.
Apparently, I called the Arts Council’s bluff, and that’s why I had to go. Three of us met with Arts Council England to press our case for an increase in our funding grant. This was part of the triennial funding review for its national portfolio organisations, and the results were announced last month.
It was a fractious meeting. Ten months ago I made a comment that if I couldn’t get extra funding for the company then I would leave. When it was clear we would not get our grant increased, the Arts Council representative turned to me. “You called the Arts Council’s bluff. And we’ve called it back.” Nice.
The offer the Arts Council made was to fund one tour a year. That would be putting all our eggs in one basket. It would have a huge effect on the people we work with. Permanent staff would possibly have to be cut and the employment of actors and crew would be cut off at the knees; maybe it would mean reductions of up to 50%.
Years ago, the Arts Council would say to me: “Your show doesn’t look very good.” I’d respond that we had 16 actors on the stage with only four crew “and it’s on the money you give us”. How we can do it and how we have done it for so many years is extraordinary.
When I said we needed more money 10 months ago, part of that was to increase the pay of the artists and the crew. I wasn’t asking for a lot and, let’s face it, this land is littered with buildings that get bailed out the whole time. Why not receive more money for us to pay those we collaborate with properly? This is something I’ve always felt strongly about.
So why did we not get that extra funding? The four-year bid we put forward to ACE was not deemed special enough. That’s what we were told.
With new epic work from Mike Poulton and Simon Armitage as well as a piece commemorating the First World War from Deborah McAndrew… well, I thought it was pretty special. Then there was the first play to be staged at Shakespeare North in Merseyside. Ah, there was lots, but it was deemed not to be special enough.
We had been encouraged to sing loudly for our supper before the meeting, to help guide the anonymous, faceless judging panel. We were to broadcast our achievements, show that with our track record we would assuredly put increased funding to good use.
It was a different story in the meeting; we were told that our 25 years’ work did not matter, that it was irrelevant. In the end, it was nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.
To be honest, the whole meeting was dispiriting. To have 25 years dismissed and the plans for the next four seen as “not special enough” was the end.
Some pretty disparaging comments were made about our diversity programme. This in a year when we cast Mat Fraser, who has phocomelia [underdeveloped arms caused by the drug Thalidomide] playing Richard III.
It’s a year in which I’m going to Shakespeare’s Globe with an all-Asian production of a Dryden play, The Captive Queen. It’s a year when we’ve employed people of many ethnicities across the board. Part of our bid was a new play, being written now, that links Halifax in Nova Scotia and Halifax in West Yorkshire, and that is an all-female production.
‘If I were in the same position now I wouldn’t set it up. It would be a daft idea in 2017’
Age is one of the six characteristics of diversity. Well, look no further than me. I’m 70, I’ve got a heart stent and prostate cancer, but I’m feeling fit as a fiddle. I’m still brimming with ideas.
I’m a great believer in the Arts Council and I have some sympathy with them in the current climate. The government craps on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it craps on ACE, and the Arts Council has to pass it on to us. That’s the vicious downward trend.
I firmly believe in state support for the arts. The best thing that could happen would be if the arts were given their own ministry, but there’s absolutely no chance of that. They were neutered ever since we were joined to media and sport under prime minister John Major.
Well, Northern Broadsides now has an opportunity. The new team might put in a dazzling four-year plan with the boost my freed-up salary gives it and it might be terrific. They might also wish to rebrand, which would be an honourable thing to do.
And the silver lining for the company is that we’ve never been richer, what with the offer of standstill funding and the release of my salary when I leave.
My time at Northern Broadsides has been absolutely wonderful. We’ve made loads of new friends, and we have developed a local, national and international reputation. We’ve ruffled a few feathers on the way but that is art.
Keeping going has been one of the achievements I look back on. I started with just one idea. I never knew there would be a year two, let alone a year 25.
I was so naive a quarter of a century ago, but naivety was courage. I just didn’t know the pitfalls, it was as simple as that. People saw the burning aura of this one idea surrounding me and I got a lot of help to get it going. And it took off. When I think back to that naivety all those years ago, I laugh.
I’m not as naive anymore and the world is not as naive. Theatre has changed and touring has changed over the years. Most theatres are no longer offering guarantees. It’s tougher and tougher on the road.
If I were in the same position now I wouldn’t set up the company. It would be a daft idea in 2017. It hadn’t really been done in 1991. The world is more sophisticated now. Having said that, theatre is still audiences and actors in the same room. And learning your lines hasn’t changed either.
I’ve still got loads of ideas and I finish with artistic cholesterol. There are all these projects I will no longer be able to realise.
Whether anyone else will want them, I don’t know. I don’t know how attractive I am. I ring up my agent and say I’m free from April 1 next year. I don’t know if the world will rush to employ me, though I hope I’m wrong. I’m not playing a violin here. It’s just that the company is so associated with me.
At the moment, I’m maintaining enthusiasm. I’m meeting the cast next month for our autumn tour of Blake Morrison’s new play For Love Or Money, which opens in Halifax this September. Then in January I’m heading down south to start rehearsals at the Globe for The Captive Queen.
There are eight months to go and as yet there is no sadness, though it might be worth asking me again once the show is on at the Globe. I’ve not voiced it to myself yet. I think all that may come later.
Barrie Rutter is the founder and outgoing artistic director of Northern Broadsides. For Love Or Money tours the UK from September 15