Following the recent launch of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Theatre, its co-chairs, MPs Tracy Brabin and Giles Watling, explain why the group was created and what it aims to achieve
An all-party parliamentary group is a simple grouping of MPs, supported by staff, who have joined together across political divides to promote a particular issue. The new Theatre APPG’s Statement of Purpose is to identify and debate potential opportunities and issues for the theatre industry in the UK, and increase fellow parliamentarians’ understanding of the theatre and performing arts at a national and local level. The APPG will be able to raise issues brought to us by the theatre industry in parliament, where we can then promote interest and investment, educate MPs, peers and ministers, and shine a spotlight on this hugely important part of the performing arts world.
UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre have been appointed the APPG secretariat, providing organisational, staff time and strategic support. They will also be bringing together theatre organisations from across the UK to act as a sounding board and suggest topics to examine.
While we do already have a Performers Alliance (which Tracy co-chairs), we believe a specific APPG for theatre will deepen government’s understanding of the power of theatre to change lives, while celebrating and consolidating this country’s position as possibly the best place in the world to see theatre, a major global exporter of the arts and a hotbed of creative talent.
Most impactful production
Market Theatre of Johannesburg in the West End in the 1980s – I’d never seen anything with such passion, commitment, and incredible use of physical space and music. The political message was electrifying and certainly contributed to my political journey, to work towards a fairer society not just in South Africa but across the world. Blew my mind.
My local theatres
We don’t have one in my constituency of Batley and Spen. Leeds Playhouse and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield are our nearest, but a poor public transport service makes attendance very difficult for many. I would like all towns to have a place for small-scale touring shows to visit. Creative Scene (part of Creative People and Places, funded by the Arts Council) uses site-specific venues, but a permanent venue means greater sustainability and the ability to build a regular audience.
My own experience
The hand-to-mouth nature of the creative industries was very stressful. The lack of maternity and paternity support also made planning a family a huge risk. Wages have stagnated over the past 10 years, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be for people working in theatre to decide when to have a family.
Given our backgrounds as jobbing actors in regional rep, international touring and West End theatre, we are both well-placed to understand the challenges and opportunities of a thriving theatre scene both regionally and in the capital. With contacts still working in the industry, we can also get interesting voices around the table to discuss the current state of play. We will be rigorous and demanding of our contributors to get a ‘state of the nation’ look at the UK’s theatre landscape.
The APPG will bring the theatre workforce into closer contact with parliamentarians, decision-makers and producers, presenting an opportunity to speak up for better pay, conditions and protections. Evidence collected from theatre professionals can be collated into a report, highlighting issues the industry faces. The APPG can suggest, in collaboration with contributors, ways to address these issues and bring them to the attention of parliament and government ministers.
We hope to put support for job shares, shared parental leave, more stability for freelances and a living wage for theatre professionals on the agenda. The future health of the sector’s workforce is vital, and one of the APPG’s core purposes will be to advocate for those highly skilled professionals who bring their creativity and innovation to the world of theatre and beyond.
Most impactful production
This is very difficult to answer, having seen so many over the years. Noises Off (the original production at the Savoy Theatre) has to be up there, and the Playhouse production of Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe was simply amazing. On the fringe, there has been Black Chiffon at London’s Park Theatre – but then my daughter was in that!
My local theatres
I had the honour of running the wonderful Frinton Summer Theatre for some years, a repertory theatre that has been around since 1937 and is still thriving. Also locally, we have Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, a very successful touring venue and production house. My mother worked there before the Second World War.
My own experience
I have had more than 50 years of experience in all forms of performing arts, as an actor, producer, director and writer, and it has been theatre to which I have always returned; I believe it offers the most intimate exchange with an audience. Once we entertain, we can inform, educate, and give pause for thought on all sorts of issues – even political ones.
As well as championing the theatre workforce, we want to encourage a greater understanding of theatre, not only in parliament, but to the general public – as involved participants as well as audience members. The APPG will help lift the veil on the inner workings of the industry, from funding, finance and employment, to theatre’s role in addressing social issues and mental health.
Public funding of the arts has long been a contentious issue; there is a limited pot of money with many demands on it. The APPG could get an overall picture of the funding situation and put it clearly into the public domain.
We would like to look at the physical, socio-economic and geographical accessibility of theatre – both from an audience perspective and as a career choice – and increasing diversity both on and off stage. We hope to be instrumental in keeping access to theatre open for all, everywhere in the country, and a big part of this is influencing government policy around giving young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to see and participate in quality local theatre.
Over the next months and years, we hope that interested parties will get in touch to work with us, to help put theatre on a higher level here in parliament. Now more than ever, we need politicians to hear from theatres – from the biggest national theatrical institutions to the tiniest touring company – and support them with the challenges they face.
Tracy Brabin is Labour MP for Batley and Spen. Giles Watling is Conservative MP for Clacton