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Lyn Gardner: Regional theatre may be thriving creatively, but what about in five years?

Richard Eyre speaking at this year's UK Theatre Awards about the difficulties faced by regional theatre. Photo: Pamela Raith
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If you wanted a barometer of the rude creative health of regional theatre, then the recent nominees and winners at the UK Theatre Awards provided it. I was on the panel, and I am giving no secrets away to say that in some categories we could have doubled the number of nominations.

There were some dazzling winners, from Bea Roberts’ brilliantly subversive family show Little Mermaid, developed with Pins and Needles, at the delightful Egg theatre in Bath to RashDash’s incisive act of creative vandalism on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

RashDash’s show toured to Bristol and London and was co-produced by the Royal Exchange in Manchester, which had a great day also winning in the best new play category with Kendall Feaver’s Bruntwood Prize-winning play The Almighty Sometimes.

2018 UK Theatre Awards: the winners in full

The Exchange’s Sarah Frankcom deservedly won the best director award for her revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a supreme example of the right play at the right time speaking directly to the people of the city in the wake of the 2017 bombing at the Manchester Arena.

Yet at the ceremony Richard Eyre, this year’s winner of the Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts, who made his reputation running Nottingham Playhouse – now enjoying its own renaissance under Adam Penfordspoke of the financial difficulties facing regional theatre.

A week earlier, National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner warned of “a real crisis looming”, adding that “the reps at the moment are doing fantastic work, but they don’t know how much longer they can do it for”.

That’s what I am hearing too, and Cameron Mackintosh joined in the throng of voices this week calling for much greater investment in the regions if British theatre is going to remain “extraordinary”. I agree, although at a time when state investment is shrinking – and we may have to contemplate the terrifying possibility that the era of subsidy as we knew it has already run its course – Mackintosh’s intervention raises the question: if the cake is shrinking, who is prepared to give up their slice to ensure the future of regional theatre?

Perhaps Mackintosh, and commercial theatre more widely, also need to recognise that much of their success is an indirect beneficiary of subsidy and dig a little deeper in their own pockets. Not that we should view regional theatre’s prime purpose as being a place where theatremakers and actors go to learn their craft before making it to London. Regional theatre is a thing in itself, as the many brilliant companies and artists who work there know – people like Gemma Bodinetz in Liverpool, Tamara Harvey at Theatr Clwyd, Sarah Brigham in Derby.

Theatre is always a learning process wherever it is made and staged, and this year’s UK Theatre Awards prove there is plenty of innovative and risky work made beyond the M25 to rival London’s best. Not because people are serving time and practising for future glory in the capital, but because they want to work in regional theatre. They want to be embedded in and speak directly with their community, delivering the best possible theatre to audiences. Audiences deserve nothing less.

If anything, there is a significant talent drain out of London at the moment, particularly by young artists who know that sustaining a creative career is impossible in a city where living costs are so high. The pity is that the cash-strapped regional theatres may not be best placed to support them and all those talented companies and individuals who want to work out of London.

Increasingly theatres are running to keep still. As Emma Stenning of Bristol Old Vic observed this week, government cuts and those by local authorities mean that theatres cannot survive on being “subsidy-reliant charities”. She pointed to the fact that the expansion of the Old Vic’s catering business was originally seen as a way of raising more cash to inject into the programme, but the combined loss of the local authority contribution and standstill funding mean that the money will have to be used to replace that.

There is significant danger of fissures forming as theatres need to become more entrepreneurial to survive, and yet also serve a much broader, more diverse range of people than they currently do.

So, you invite people in and then try to flog them a sandwich for a fiver. You can rent out your spaces to raise income, but can you then give free space to local artists and community groups? You can spend less on your programme, but will that compromise the shows and mean disappointed audiences do not return?

It’s a conundrum and it won’t go away. There was much to celebrate at this year’s UK Theatre Awards. The challenge is to create the conditions which mean we will still be celebrating in five years’ time.

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