After the Tories’ shock victories in a number of seats across the north in the general election last year, commentators noted that to keep those seats they would have to deliver real change in places often described as “left behind”. So, the government came up with “levelling up”, a slogan about tackling inequality of opportunity outside of London and rebalancing the UK’s economy.
I work at Live Theatre in Newcastle, the largest city in the North East. The prospect of levelling up would be most welcome here. More opportunity. A fairer share. However, levelling up is currently just another abstract concept to add to the Northern Powerhouse.
One industry that could do with levelling up between London and beyond is theatre. Especially when it comes to artist opportunity. There are other opportunities across Newcastle: Alphabetti Theatre and Northern Stage both have artist development programmes, and across the wider north, Manchester is a growing hub, to name just one city. However, there is still a strong sense that for long-term development and sustainability you have to move to London. To some extent it’s true.
I wouldn’t be a producer in Newcastle if I hadn’t spent five years in London. That’s not surprising. Our entire national infrastructure and theatre industry centres around the capital.
However, what if you can’t afford to move to London? What if you’re in a situation that won’t allow that? What if you don’t want to? What if you are truly based in a region or community in which your creatively is rooted, which sings of an identity that doesn’t often get a voice? Do you become one of the left behind?
Levelling up sounds great but how realistic is it and how quickly could anyone envisage such a game changer to take place? These are just buzzwords, words for which buzz can fade quickly.
The same can be said for talent development. These programmes are often based around a certain on-trend initiative that quickly falls out of favour. Those who suddenly feel the door opened can quickly see it closed. Levelling up by its nature implies stages of development, long-term commitment, investment and most importantly sustainability.
So, it’s left to us and we strive to do exactly that with the Elevator Festival, an event in its fifth year with sustainability at its heart. It’s an investment in long-term relationships with theatre artists to create bold, diverse and contemporary new plays.
It offers progressive levels of development spanning from a first-time writer walking through the doors all the way to Shelagh Stephenson or Lee Hall. It’s a home for new ideas rooted in place and identity. A community of support where artistic risk and experiment can take off. Then, hopefully, keep flying. That’s the sort of levelling up that theatre needs – in all its forms but especially in those regions that feel left behind.
Elevator Festival is at Live Theatre, Newcastle from March 11-21