The news from Liverpool this week will make for sobering reading for many theatre leaders around the UK.
The Everyman and Playhouse was widely regarded as successful: the Everyman had been physically revamped to brilliant effect and it looked as if the team were set to repeat the feat with a bold new programming model.
But it was not to be and, writing for us this week, Lyn Gardner wonders if the effect of the financial failure of its experiment to reintroduce a repertory company might be the harbinger of difficulties for theatres nationwide.
On one hand, I fear she might be right. I cannot see the environment for local theatres improving in the immediate future: councils continue to be squeezed and there are broad expectations that the next central government funding settlement will not be good for the arts. Income from the National Lottery has begun to dip. One would expect the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit to affect corporate support, as well as consumer spending and, potentially, philanthropy. None of this is good for theatre.
But, there are also reasons to be cautiously optimistic. I cannot remember a time when so many regional producing theatres were creating so much impressive work. The regional theatre of the year debate at The Stage Awards judging meeting this year took significantly more time than the conversation around our London category. All three of our shortlisted organisations would make worthy winners and we could have filled the shortlist many times over. This has not always been the case.
Not long ago, our three nominees might have been regarded as under-performing. Manchester Royal Exchange turned things around a little while ago and is now consistently excellent, but Theatr Clwyd and Nottingham Playhouse’s reinvigoration has been more recent. Nottingham, in particular, seems to have burst back on to the scene in the last 12 months.
This shows that – despite the difficult environment – progress is possible. And this is true in other fields: the nominees for the Innovation Award are three schemes that, in different ways, are making theatre more accessible. Or indeed our schools of the year, where three (again very different) organisations are helping to shape the next generation.
Yes, there are reasons to be careful, but the failure of the Liverpool experiment should not encourage theatres to stick to the status quo or retreat into conservative programming: change can be good, even in challenging times.