Lyn Gardner: Is Liverpool Everyman the canary in the coal mine for regional theatre?
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse’s request to withdraw from Arts Council England’s national portfolio as it reviews its business model will attract enormous sympathy, but it will also send a shiver of fear around other regional theatres.
It appears that artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and former executive director Deborah Aydon’s bold attempt to return to the resident rep company model for the Everyman has pushed it to a tipping point that threatens its future. Aydon departed in September.
The shows produced were often of quality but, nonetheless, the theatre found it could not sell enough tickets across the season, and trying to run a rep company placed undue strain both on the box office and the organisation. That might serve as a wake-up call to those who keep calling for a return to the repertory system, often for reasons of nostalgia and because it was very good for their own careers more than a quarter of a century ago. The world is a very different place, and career paths are different too.
That’s not to say the rep-company project was a terrible idea. But it was always ambitious and always a risk. It received an innovation prize at The Stage Awards in 2018 and Bodinetz won the best director award at the 2017 UK Theatre Awards for the first season.
I saw several productions, and although I didn’t love them all, I was deeply impressed by Bodinetz’s take on Fiddler on the Roof and very much admired the way the company saw its role as enabling careers. There was radicalism too, not least in the 2018 production of Othello, in which Golda Rosheuvel shined as a lesbian Othello, a woman general in a man’s world.
It feels particularly sad that after 15 years making the Everyman and Playhouse work, when others before her had tried and failed, Bodinetz should now find herself leading an organisation with such a rich history but whose future is uncertain. The NPO funding has been ring-fenced, but the 2019 season will predominantly be shows by visiting companies.
Liverpool’s plight is a reminder of just how close to the edge many regional theatres are operating and how perilously near many are to breaching their NPO agreements. As one leading industry insider put it to me: “There are many canaries in cages coughing, if not yet falling off their perches.” As with Liverpool, it wouldn’t take all that much to knock them off, and when one tumbles – particularly one as big as Liverpool – the fear is that more may follow.
It isn’t as if theatres have failed to recognise the need to diversify income streams. Many have made great strides in recent years in becoming less reliant on public funding. But there is a limit to what is achievable when trying to balance resources with the operation’s changing needs as well as the community’s needs. Do you rent out a room or give the space to a community project? Which in the end builds the most capital?
Remember it is the best resourced who can best survive testing financial conditions and have agency over their future income streams. It is no surprise that Les Miserables, Matilda, War Horse and Curious Incident, four of the most revenue-producing shows of recent decades, were developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, which have the highest levels of public subsidy. It’s not that regional houses don’t want to create the next Matilda or have the creative skill to do so, but they simply don’t have the resources to begin.
The situation beyond London is fragile, and there is little light at the end of the tunnel with the uncertainties of Brexit. This adds to a perfect storm that includes standstill funding, cuts from local authorities, dying high streets and the increasing difficulty of getting audiences to leave their sofas, and the promise of endless box sets on TV, and buy tickets – unless a show has a star name or a well-known title.
Liverpool in particular has a large number of people working in the public sector, which has been squeezed. You don’t spend money on theatre tickets when you think you might lose your job or are feeling the pinch. If this year’s panto sales across the country – which make such a crucial contribution to many regional subsidised houses’ annual box office – are down, it will be another marker of potential bad times ahead.
Commentators have regularly, and prematurely, rushed to write regional theatre’s obituary, but the canaries have always found a way to continue singing. Liverpool presents a stark warning though. Not since the end of the 1980s has regional theatre faced quite such testing times. I wish everyone luck over the coming year, but I fear not everyone will emerge unscathed.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner