In these globally turbulent times of Trump, Brexit and a myriad of other issues, the social purpose of theatre has never been more important, especially within our regional towns and cities. Theatre’s vital role can often be the glue that holds together a society, or even serve as a foundation for forming one.
The Brexit vote revealed a stark division between people, communities and even families in the UK that, depending upon where you live, may have appeared shocking and bewildering. It shamefully also highlighted how a lack of communication, disengagement and misunderstanding over many years had built up, leaving many to feel that no one was listening to them.
Repair and renewal is urgently needed and it’s therefore tragic that the European Commission has decided to suspend the European Capital of Culture 2023  process, which would have returned the prestigious title to the UK for only the third time.
For those cities bidding: Belfast, Dundee, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Nottingham, much preparation work had already been undertaken, and much money spent on preparing their bids.
The process had already seen these cities’ communities forging and reigniting cultural relationships. It would have been a valuable long-lasting legacy of cultural value, growth, discovery, ownership and sharing that the previous two European Capitals of Cultural in the UK – Glasgow and Liverpool  – successfully continue to demonstrate. That opportunity has now been lost.
It is not just about a city being awarded the title. In 2008, I served as one of the patrons for my home city of Norwich’s European City of Culture bid.
Although it did not win, Norwich’s decision to participate in the bidding process (as with the other bid cities) was almost as important as if it had. Norwich’s bid brought its city and communities together through art; it became stronger and more united. It also opened itself up to new ideas, different perspectives, creative collisions and collaborations that have undoubtedly made it a culturally richer place.
‘Any new regulations will have an effect for producing in Europe and on any cross-country cultural collaborations’
Last week, the European Capital of Culture bid cities were to meet with the selection committee and a final shortlist selected. Instead, the bid cities were presenting an open letter to the commission and government voicing dismay that they would no longer be considered.
But the decision to suspend the award represents far more than one high-profile title in 2023. Aside from what it would have meant for these cities’ cultural growth, the suspension represents a statement of isolation. Alarmingly it also suggests what may follow for other decisions that could affect the UK cultural industries as the country separates from the EU, particularly in relation to funding and cultural partnerships.
With so much uncertainly ahead of the UK’s departure date in March 2019 – and still no clarity over arrangements for trade and movement – the arts industries may not be seen as high on the trade agenda compared to others. At worst, it could even be treated as dispensable in negotiations.
The general lack of information as to what happens when the UK leaves the EU raises many concerns for its arts industries in relation to the touring and production of work in Europe. For example; will there be specific working visas that require preparation and possible costs? How will tax treaties work in relation to funding, investment and on any return? Will the cost of travel and supply increase significantly? This affects work at all scales from the bijou company to the major commercial operators.
There is an urgent need for proper clarity because many European theatres book their seasons a couple of years ahead. It means that, currently, touring producers and companies are blindly agreeing deals with Europe’s theatres to present work without knowing the implications of what the Brexit deal will mean by the time they tour there in two years’ time.
It’s a similar issue for work that’s coming from Europe to play in the UK. Any new regulations will have an effect for producing in Europe and on any cross-country cultural collaborations. These now present uncertainty for production or co-production arrangements with potential European partners, theatres, funders or investors.
It means that for all scales of production, the risks have grown considerably and been set before a backdrop of global economic and political challenges. If nothing is done, and no coherent information offered, the consequences will be huge. Years of creative industry relationships could potentially be lost for good – alongside revenue in Europe for the UK and visa-versa – or at the very least will take years to rebuild.
It is why the European Capital of Culture could just be written off by governments as collateral damage in the fight for a wider trade deal, but that would be to miss the vital importance this decision represents as a potential harbinger of devastating long-term loss for the arts in the UK.