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Jamie Eastlake: We can’t let cuts push the working-class out of theatre

Theatre N16's new partnership with north London arts space Styx, above, marks its third home
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This summer has felt like a festival – the joy from the heatwaves, Love Island and a certain football event. It’s a credit to the FA’s investment in grassroots football and the manager who has supported so many working-class kids to thrive on an international stage.

The spirit of this summer has even infected theatre. We’re no longer just discussing whether it is still more difficult for the working class to get into the industry, but seeking solutions to open up theatre further.

We are proactively seeking to nurture young talent and support a more diverse generation of artists to create work that can get a nation buzzing. But there are no easy solutions.

It’s not uncommon for drama departments in schools outside London, like my old one in the North East, to have little more than a cupboard full of hats gathering dust. This is the start of the problem. With no funds to introduce young people to theatre, how do we expect them to see it as a potential career? The innovative programmes that aided me, such as Creative Partnerships up north, have all lost their funding in recent years and no longer visit schools in working-class areas. Private funding still supports the larger establishments, but that doesn’t trickle down to working-class children. Other cultural industries allow grassroots organisations in working-class areas to thrive, yet ours seemingly gather dust.

Government cuts have caused this loss of initiatives. So perhaps it’s time to use the government money still available in a different way. For example, the FA uses money from government schemes and private investment to build programmes such as St George’s Park training and education centre, which is centred around youth. Of course there’s more money in football, but this grassroots model in sport has allowed young stars to progress, encouraged by the accessibility of youth teams.

Making art should be full of risk, but not all of it should be taken by the artist

The gatekeepers to theatre are the venues: they can make it hard for those with no funds to break in. We need to allow companies to create work without exorbitant upfront fees. We should take a hard look at venues and their business models to create a fairer playing field. Making art should be full of risk, but not all of it should be taken by the artist.

Christopher Haydon: Theatres urgently need to become egalitarian spaces

At Theatre N16 we have introduced a series of development schemes to help those from less well-off backgrounds find an easier path into the industry – from getting their first paid gig on stage to free training. We want to open the path for actors to write their own big breaks, allowing them to follow in the steps of the likes of Luke Barnes and Milly Thomas.

There should be access for all who want to create. Or at least a drive to introduce children and ignite the fire in their bellies early on.

It has to change. We need a broader, more representative body of work in our theatres. We are losing out on potential theatremakers as other industries do more to support children to succeed. We need to help those breaking through to thrive and grow their theatre dreams.

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