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Lyn Gardner: As independents face ‘Armageddon’, funded theatres must lend their support

Javaad Alipoor in The Believers Are But Brothers

It’s the time of the year when thoughts turn again to Edinburgh, as companies weigh up whether to take part in next year’s fringe or not [1].

This morning, Northern Stage will announce that it is not going to Edinburgh next summer. The Newcastle-based theatre has been a significant presence on the fringe in recent years [2], showcasing the work of independent artists based in the region and helping them secure exposure, tours and new opportunities [3].

This comes just a couple of days after the New Diorama announced – as part of its remarkable artist development programme – that it will be working with Underbelly to help nine independent companies stage a show on the fringe [4] over three consecutive years.

It’s an initiative that will include £3,000 of investment, a venue slot with no deposit or guarantee, an enhanced box office split, and press and marketing support.

It’s great to see the New Diorama – a company whose heady generosity and skill in supporting independent theatre companies is unique – lending a hand to the many who would like to go to Edinburgh but face insurmountable barriers to getting there.

Nonetheless, the decision by Northern Stage highlights the questions that everyone thinking of making the pilgrimage to Edinburgh, whether a funded organisation such as Northern Stage or an independent company, should be asking: Why am I going? What do I want to get out of it? Do the costs and sacrifices merit the potential return? Are there other and better ways to showcase the work?

Northern Stage hasn’t ruled out a return to Edinburgh in 2019. But it is taking a year out – tellingly, during a year in which the biennial British Council showcase [5], which substantially increases the number of international promoters in town, is not taking place.

Instead, in conjunction with partner theatres, Northern Stage will be trying to come up with a strategy that ensures independent companies and the regional ecology gets the best possible support for the money spent and effort expended.

Rather than putting more money into the hands of Edinburgh Council and private landlords, it is asking whether the money could be better spent at the Dublin Fringe, or at Noorderzon in the Netherlands [6], or somewhere else. Or perhaps supporting independent artists all year round so that they can tour regionally and nationally.

It is, as Northern Stage’s artistic director Lorne Campbell [7] says, a question of rethinking how “you use the 6ft funding and resources duvet that Northern Stage has at its disposal to cover an 8ft bed”.

Which bits should really be kept covered and warm? Particularly in an increasingly chilly climate of falling lottery sales [8] and independent artists reliant on diminishing funding pots from the Arts Council and Creative Scotland.

The New Diorama initiative offers one approach, and Northern Stage another. It’s not that one is better than the other but realising that it’s a case of horses for courses. The New Diorama is supporting the wider independent sector, while Northern Stage is considering the best way to support and showcase the independents operating in its region.

It is exactly what Band One organisations such as Northern Stage, which are getting the highest national portfolio organisation settlements, should be doing in order to offer the best possible support to the regional and wider theatre ecology.

Many have been doing it to some extent, though often in the form of collaborations involving unequal power relationships.

Some have done it with such imagination and generosity that they have helped change the landscape for independent companies in their regions. Derby Theatre, for instance, has done just this and has seen a 59% rise in its NPO funding as a reward. This is an example of an NPO taking its responsibilities to the wider sector seriously and Arts Council England recognising its contribution.

Thinking about how you support others, and not just yourself, as Derby, New Diorama and Northern Stage do, is more crucial than ever. The independent sector is facing what has been described to me in recent weeks as “a perfect storm”, “carnage” and “Armageddon” because of the pressure on Grants for the Arts in England and the Open Fund in Scotland.

For many independent companies, these funds are their best chance of financing work and without a reasonable strike rate their futures are unsustainable. Many will simply cease to exist over the next few years.

Those NPOs with money and resources, who look only to their own survival, will find themselves the sole survivors, the battered tree isolated in a cultural wasteland. It’s only by supporting the new shoots and tender plants and keeping the whole ecology healthy that today’s tall trees will thrive themselves.

Lyn Gardner: Using NPO funding to compete, not collaborate, is perverse [9]