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Paul Jepson: Support for regional theatres’ main stages is vital or great work and skills will vanish

Northcott Theatre, Exeter. Photo: Mark Dawson Northcott Theatre, Exeter. Photo: Mark Dawson
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Former director of Exeter Northcott Paul Jepson says: don’t underestimate the traditional – gems can be found in the auditorium, as well as the studio. The new might be exciting, but we cannot afford to lose the skills of the old

For four years, from 2014 until this summer, I was the artistic and executive director of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. It’s fair to say the organisation I took over was not in the peak of health.

It wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if it had joined the list of producing theatres, founded in the 1960s, that have since been allowed to fade away – either becoming receiving houses or, as in many cases, shutting their doors entirely. Shortly after I took over, the theatre featured in a BBC documentary and a reviewer commented that the Northcott hadn’t achieved much of any value in recent years.

To my mind, the regional theatre movement is one of the great achievements of the post-war period. It made work of quality more widely available, both geographically and socially. It makes perfect sense to me that the movement’s main architect – the then secretary of state for the arts Jennie Lee – was the wife of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS. Throughout my tenure at the Northcott I kept a photo of Lee, standing over a model of the theatre, Blu-Tacked to the wall in my office. It was her pet project. I say office, it was – and is – a dressing room intended for one actor. I shared it with two (at times three) colleagues and we had one working phone line.

Four years on, the fabric of the theatre is still dilapidated, particularly backstage. Yet the organisation is thriving. Making work, promoting new talent – training, enabling, educating, enlivening and engaging. The contact with diverse audiences, and those from less affluent backgrounds, is encouraging. The theatre is working effectively with those with special and complex needs. Sales are up and the average age is down. Occupancy is 63%. This Northcott has the beginning of a national reputation. There’s about to be a classical text on stage with an in-house production that has a company of 13 (two-a-penny when the Northcott opened 50 years ago. Nowadays, as common as hens’ teeth).

I’m not saying that it should be one or the other, company or building. Companies are where the new is often first born. They are naturally light and adaptable – they bomb it. Blow it up – great. Equally, I feel buildings are an essential part of the producing machine that can be undervalued and misunderstood. The building – if well run – provides the pathway into main house production. It is a focus for reaching out into the community and engaging new and young audiences. It is a meeting place for makers and watchers and a natural facilitator for exchange and enrichment through creativity. The physicality of the building is of value to the front of house and through the concrete relationship between audience and stage.

While I’m not saying the old models for regional theatre are financially or artistically appropriate, the pendulum has swung too far. There are a set of attitudes that I sense beneath commentary and policy in the arts. Main house is a bit of a bore – studio is where it is at. An un-deconstructed old play is tantamount to ‘small c’ conservatism. If parts of the repertoire die off what does it matter? Directors are born, not made, and they make up their own skill. The best way to be one is to open the window and say you are. Auditoriums can never compete for excitement with found space. Immersion is more important than reflection in a performance environment. The more mixed the art form, the better the art.

The skills associated with big theatre are important and are fairly closely associated with the main house building-based theatre space. If we keep letting the regional theatres produce less and receive more, what’s going to happen to all this skill? Maybe it doesn’t matter. We’ll listen to amplified text in a not-too-demanding style in a 30ft square room or suspended from the edge of a viaduct. Also, what is to happen to all the set-making skills if we allow all the workshops to close? Anyway, everyone is using video nowadays (myself included).

The synthesis of skill – the old and the new – is where the excitement lies. When we launched the associates programme at the Northcott, the response from local companies was immediate. They wanted to get in there. They wanted to facilitate a bolder vision. They wanted to play to 400 rather than 40. They wanted to work their voices and increase their physicality. Most of all, they wanted the energy that comes back – the defining, life-enhancing energy that is exchanged in a large venue between the stage and the auditorium. This isn’t something desirable to performance – it is essential.

It would be a pity if in 20 years’ time the only organisations capable of originating work that had this sensibility and sensory depth were in London, Manchester and Stratford-upon-Avon. I can see that happening. It isn’t necessary, but it is possible – and forget about classical work, I’m talking about all work. It would, of course, be elitist in the extreme.

Certainly, the regional houses need capital and there is a commitment on the part of funders to resilience, which is rational and necessary. The Northcott is probably in less good nick than most in this respect, but many have similar problems: dodgy wiring in the grid; no LED lighting (I know the lighting designers hate them – but they are coming); flying systems that are becoming unsafe and are far from up-to-date; lack of video technology; no decent Wi-Fi; problem foyer spaces. More seats and better foyers help businesses diversify and increase net. Safety needs no argument.

The problem is that regional producing theatres also need revenue. There needs to be a debate. Priorities need to be reassessed and maybe resources need to be redistributed. It’s time for an honest conversation.

If, at the end of it, everyone agrees that the regional producing network doesn’t represent good enough value when compared to other areas of investment – so be it. Equally, if it does – time to get real. Buildings can be sexy too. But not if they’re shut.

Don Carlos opens at Exeter Northcott on October 11 ahead of performances at Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Rose Theatre Kingston

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