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Jonathan Church: We must step up to save regional theatres before it’s too late

With a fall in audiences outside London last year, now is the time to look at why theatres are ailing, argues Jonathan Church. From once-thriving receiving venues to producing houses, alarm bells are ringing, he says

This month, news emerged that regional theatre attendance dipped last year, the first annual decline in audiences since UK Theatre started recording the data in 2013.

Obviously, one year does not make a trend – the results could be a statistical blip – and it’s worth remembering that for the big touring theatres, the shows they put on have a massive influence on ticket sales; the past few years has seen some of the biggest West End shows on extended tours with long sit-downs and there is always the potential that this will cause a drop off. So it is too early to panic.

But there are warning signs of problems ahead. Perhaps even more noticeably for drama than big musicals.

Slump in regional theatre attendance leads to warning over rising ticket prices [1]

A number of forces are pushing ticket prices up in the regions and at the same time making it less attractive for commercial producers to take their work to theatres around the country. It turns into a vicious cycle, with the quality of work diminishing. At the same time, there is a squeeze in subsidised theatre, where reduced funding is having an ever increasing effect and, with audiences flat, ticket prices are also rising. All these factors interlink in a complex and dangerous way.

I worked in regional theatres for two decades and ran theatres in Salisbury, Birmingham and Chichester. In my new commercial world, I’m now working with major subsidised venues in Bristol, Leeds and Leicester to co-produce some of our work.

In the past 12 years, the economics of those theatres have radically changed. Standstill arts grants have been the biggest factor driving the change, as well as shifts at local authorities, with a number cutting their subsidy or removing it altogether. Those pressures appear to have affected the ambition and scale of the work, which often has an impact on the audience, and they force those organisations to look at increasing ticket pricing, meaning audiences are arguably paying more for less – another vicious circle.

London is a country all of its own. It behaves differently from everywhere else and the West End seems to buck all the financial pressures that face the rest of the industry. Who knows if that will continue, but in commercial touring terms, there’s a very different story.

Most major regional touring venues are run by one company: Ambassador Theatre Group. Venues that were some of the best drama houses a decade ago are now underperforming. They are effectively being run by a chain, rather than by a hand-picked arts professional dedicated to each theatre and its audiences. So, they do not benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit or focus on their local audiences or on building relationships in the community that many would suggest are the hallmarks of the flourishing touring venues.

The difference between those theatres and the thriving, independently run touring venues is getting bigger and bigger. Because the costs of going to those ATG venues is increasing for producers, while the audience is declining, the incentives to take their work there are not so good. So those producers will instead choose to go to the thriving independent theatres, meaning the work may bypass those venues that are already in trouble.

I’ve just been appointed chairman at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, a touring venue in transition from local authority control to an independently run trust. With brilliant local authority support towards rebuilding the theatre combined with growing audiences, it operates more like a large, subsidised regional theatre.

Another example of a flourishing, smaller, independent theatre is the Theatre Royal Bath, another venue with no subsidy that manages to sustain an ambitious main house, studio and an education programme. The Arts Theatre in Cambridge is also working hard to shift – about 15 years ago it wasn’t one of the top four touring dates. It is now alongside Bath and Guildford as one of the prized touring drama dates. They’re co-producing work and developing work themselves. You can feel the exciting change happening.

Increasingly, bigger venues such as those in Salford, Norwich and Wolverhampton are developing their models as their audiences are growing. They invest in both the work they make and their community engagement in ways that would traditionally have been seen as the subsidised theatres’ natural model.

These commercial touring theatres are by their nature often leaner organisations than their subsidised counterparts and the ones that are thriving are becoming more able to invest in the development and creation of work. Often by co-producing with commercial partners, they’re beginning to invest as much – and in some cases more – in that work than the subsidised companies. This has been a real shock for me to observe and is potentially disastrous for the subsidised companies, many of which who have relied on commercial partnerships to enhance their programme and their box office.

It’s not so disastrous for the commercial producers, because there is another route open to getting their shows on with financial help. I can see a world now where in the future the thriving independently run commercial venues become better partners for co-producing work than the subsidised venues and I think that is rather terrifying.

Of course, not all venues have the perfect conditions and audiences to make this happen and are in vital need of subsidy and high quality work at an affordable cost. It is worth remembering that many regional theatres – subsidised or not – in deprived and socially complex parts of the country spend most of their time firefighting. The tragedy is that, given our history in which subsidy has delivered excellence for all of my working lifetime, you can feel it waning.

The shift took a while. Labour’s investment under Tony Blair, particularly in regional theatres, appeared to prompt artists who would not normally have left London to run regional theatres because they saw real opportunities. Gemma Bodinetz went to Liverpool, Tom Morris to Bristol (and David Farr and Simon Reade before him), Michael Grandage to Sheffield and Rupert Goold to Northampton. Established London artists went around the country to make their work.

Without the new tax relief, the effect of funding cuts on subsidised theatre in the regions would have been a bloodbath

The move away from that takes a while to work through the system as falling subsidy has an effect and there are still, against the odds, thriving subsidised regional theatres – only fewer. Credit should go to this current government, which no one likes talking about, for an initiative that prevented total collapse of the subsidised system: theatre tax relief. If you took that out of the picture, then I believe the effect of Arts Council and local authority cuts on subsidised theatre in the regions would have been nothing short of a bloodbath. With the Arts Council under-resourced, local authorities cutting back, lottery funds reducing and no apparent clear political belief in the arts as a social necessity, the picture is not very rosy. The true extent of the problem is being masked by theatre tax relief, London’s success and very clever commercial productions.

The knock-on effect of further regional decline could be seismic to the industry. Most of the great artistic directors of the past 20 years spent time as an associate at a regional theatre. Stephen Daldry, Matthew Warchus, Indhu Rubasingham, Sam Mendes, Josie Rourke, Nicholas Hytner and Goold to name but a few all engaged with regional audiences, cut their directing teeth and learned their craft regionally before flourishing in London.

Without wishing to hark back to the ‘good old days’, when I was working in Sheffield in the late 1980s, there were three or four associate directors, as well as associate designers and composers. At the Royal Exchange in Manchester, a string of associates went on to become some of the most important directors of their generation. Artists were nurtured and developed.

There are theatres engaging with artists in that way now, but at about a quarter of the level it was 30 years ago. Ultimately this affects the skills coming down the pipeline. London is picking much of this slack up and we are in a world that is much more London-centric again. Speaking as a regionalist, that is never a good thing.

So, we have to take this recent news seriously. If it is true that audiences are declining and ticket prices are rising, then we need to pay serious attention. For audiences, pricing has to be right and they should have access to the best shows. If you’re not in control of those things, which I would suggest a lot of regional venues aren’t, then you’re in trouble. There will always be exceptions, but having seen the pattern over 30 years from both a subsidised and a commercial perspective, for me the alarm bells are ringing and we should be tackling now, at the highest political level, how our theatres are run and subsidised for the industry and the country’s future health and prosperity.