I have seen first-hand the excellent educational work that the Royal Shakespeare Company does, and the passion of Jacqui O’Hanlon, its impressive director of education. She and her team have ensured that young people in schools all over the country have the tools and the confidence to take ownership of Shakespeare.
O’Hanlon recognises that Shakespeare can seem difficult but that, if you are given the right keys, you can access the room. What’s more, you can feel comfortable and enjoy being there. Too many children are still left feeling stupid by the way they encounter Shakespeare at school.
Even teachers often run scared when it comes to teaching his work. And when Emma Rice took over at Shakespeare’s Globe, she admitted she found the playwright’s work tricky to understand – the statement became a stick to beat her with. But her honesty was admirable.
The RSC education department’s work in some of the most deprived areas of the country has yielded impressive results – not just in making Shakespeare accessible but also adding value in other ways: from raising exam results to raising confidence, which has a knock-on effect on health, well-being and ambition.
So, I was sad to see the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran scoring a spectacular own goal when he said the organisation’s education work could be dented by the loss of income from the closure of the original production of Les Misérables, which has made the company about £30 million in royalties. Doran said that royalties from Matilda and Les Mis have enabled the company to do the live broadcasts that are streamed into schools.
Surely it is a matter of priorities. Why, when funding and revenues are threatened, do theatres and arts organisations often look to cut participatory or educational activity? It sends out the message that they don’t see this work as a core activity but as an add-on. You can tell much about an arts organisation’s values by its attitudes to educational work and the direct involvement of its artistic director in that work.
Doran’s comments may simply have been clumsily worded, or designed to encourage Cameron Mackintosh – who will not be taking a financial hit from the new arrangements for Les Mis – to offer a generous donation to the RSC’s educational work. That would be nice.
But it is never a good look when a company that in the financial year 2018/19 had an income of £86.4 million including £15 million in public subsidy from Arts Council England starts crying poverty and that it will have to cut educational work. This is particularly true when many regional theatres and small companies have been cut to the quick by slashes to central and local authority funding, with no opportunity of generating the ticket sales or sponsorship that the RSC can raise.
‘Any threat to the RSC’s education work is a threat to the most vulnerable in society’
Northern Stage’s Lorne Campbell – soon moving to head up National Theatre Wales – is right to point out the vulnerability of some regional theatres and their danger of “falling over” if arts funding is further squeezed.
Doran’s comments are doubly unfortunate in the run-up to a general election when arts leaders are, sensibly, saying the battle for arts funding is not lost, and are putting pressure on politicians from all parties to make more investment in the creative sector.
In a survey for Arts Council England in late 2017, 31% of Conservative MPs polled were opposed to public funding of the arts. It underlines the need for us to put pressure on our elected representatives, making it clear that arts funding is important to us as voters.
Perhaps from where Doran is sitting, at the head of a flagship company with all the accumulated privilege that comes with that, it is harder to see what the rest of the theatre ecology is facing as the chill winds of funding cuts blow. But maybe he should. After all, some of those Tory MPs who may be back in power with a majority could well start pointing to the Globe, which stages Shakespeare without government funding, and ask questions.
Theatre has been getting better at recognising that the shows it produces are not the only thing that makes it valued and its biggest impact on people’s lives and well-being is often through its participatory and education work.
Fewer wigs in every RSC production or one less revival of Twelfth Night won’t be noticed. But any threat to its education work is a threat to the most vulnerable in our society and sends out the message that, when the chips are down, theatres are still serving an elite rather than everyone.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner