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Lyn Gardner: We will face a crisis if early-career theatremakers aren’t supported

The cast of Bottled, one of the productions by emerging artists at the Vault Festival, London. Photo: Slav Kirichok
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If the last few weeks of the Vault Festival in London have demonstrated anything, it is that there’s no shortage of talent and good ideas out there. The question is: how can programmers, producers and venues best support that talent and those ideas so artists and shows can develop and companies get a chance to grow up? It’s a question that also looms every year on the Edinburgh Fringe.

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What many of these young companies really need is the opportunity to develop their fledgling productions with the support of venues. Because theatre does not spring fully formed. Many of the Vault companies – or those who play Camden People’s Theatre as part of the excellent Sprint Festival, which begins early next month – will have learned a great deal from putting a show in front of an audience. But they will need more sustained support to take things further, or, in some cases, to start afresh with a new idea.

But often theatre is not very good at supporting ideas unless it comes in script form. If critics tend to be overly wedded to the word, then many producers are too, as if the script is a talisman, something concrete to hang on to. For less experienced artists, being able to articulate an idea and say how you are going to deliver it is not easy. And not necessary. The rehearsal room shouldn’t concentrate on delivery in which no risks are taken, and nothing is discovered is an arid place producing lifeless theatre.

Many theatres are actually quite strongly risk-averse, paying lip service to adventure and innovation but reluctant to programme anything – particularly new work – unless they think it is a dead cert. But, of course, there is no such thing. Shows that look preposterous as an idea – say, War Horse: Black Beauty in the trenches with life-size puppets – can turn out to be the biggest successes.

‘Without new work, British theatre and venues risk petrification’

Nobody is going to give Vault artists the kind of budget and development time that the National gave War Horse, but there are venues and producers who are incubating new work. These include producing outfits such as Midlands-based China Plate, whose Bite Size programme supports, commissions and showcases new work from local artists. There is In Good Company, which is doing the same in the East Midlands, and Ovalhouse in London, whose First Bites season has produced some terrific shows including The Believers Are But Brothers and How to Win Against History, which went on to great success at other venues.

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What a building-based initiative such as Ovalhouse’s First Bites offers is more of a level playing field for non script-based work and an opportunity to take an idea beyond scratch. Ovalhouse provides a small seed commission and other support that makes it likely that companies will be more successful with Arts Council England applications.

There are strong benefits for Ovalhouse too because, for a fiver, audiences can see a new piece of work. Seeing more new work helps develop braver audiences who are more likely to try other shows outside their comfort zone. It’s the opposite approach to that of many theatres, who say they simply can’t programme new work by unknown artists because it is too much of a box-office risk.

But without new work, British theatre and venues risk petrification. One of the issues facing British theatre is the way the flood of young people entering the profession narrows to a trickle as artists get older, funding gets scarcer and it simply becomes harder and harder to sustain careers. Many just give up, taking their talent and ideas into other industries. It is theatre’s loss.

The result is an imbalance in talent and experience. So, British theatre ends up with a load of inexperienced people at the start of their careers and a raft of experienced, older and more established companies, many of whom have enjoyed years as national portfolio organisations.

There is a big gap between the two, and it’s like having two bits of bread for a sandwich with no filling, but it’s that filling that holds the whole thing together. In theatre terms, this part of the industry has contracted further as touring circuits and fees have diminished, and it has become increasingly hard to make the leap from the small to the mid-scale.

Those who have entered theatre over the last few years know that regular funding of any kind is unlikely ever to come their way. That’s why genuinely well-supported development opportunities at the start of careers are more important than ever.

The question I’ve been asking myself is: following the first or second shows I’ve seen at Vault this year, will those creatives have the energy, and access to resources, to make their third or fourth? And if they can’t, then British theatre has a problem.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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