Regional theatre has been in a state of impending crisis for as long as I have been writing for The Stage – and long before.
This week, Paul Jepson, formerly of the Exeter Northcott, is the latest to urge the sector to answer a series of important questions “before it’s too late”.
A quick skim through The Stage’s archives reveals similar complaints from senior figures in 2007, 2000, 1995, 1990, 1983 and 1980. So, if there is an impending crisis, it has been impending for the best part of three decades.
Against this proviso, I fear that Jepson may have a point. I’m not convinced there are major problems in terms of the quality of productions – there is some superb work around the UK – nor ticket sales, which remain pretty stable according to UK Theatre figures, but in terms of employment opportunities.
Jepson highlights the increasing number of co-productions, a trend across the past decade. He also points to reduced cast sizes. I’d be interested to see data to back this up, but I can believe that Jepson might be right.
Equity used to collect useful data about actor working weeks in subsidised repertory theatres – essentially, major regional producing theatres – and I believe it continues to do so. A quick mine of this data should be able to show whether the number of actors employed has reduced significantly in recent years.
But I fear the greater concern could be the reduction in the number of employment opportunities for creatives. For actors, an increase in co-productions might mean fewer jobs, with each job lasting longer, leaving the number of working weeks relatively unaffected. But the same would not be true for creative team members. This is a worry, or as Jepson puts it, a “potentially catastrophic risk to the talent development pathway”.
An increasing number of university and drama school courses offer to train the next generation of creatives and there are numerous development and early-career schemes. But are we in danger of creating an industry that doesn’t have enough real, paid jobs to support a sustainable, diverse pool of directors, designers and choreographers? Are employment opportunities falling to such a low level that a career in theatre is simply not sustainable for creatives?
I’m not aware of any organisation collecting and analysing any data on this. But somebody should be finding out whether this problem is real and how bad it is, before it’s too late.
If The Stage can help, we would be glad to.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith