There is, of course, no such thing as regional theatre. You simply can’t lump together everything made outside London. It’s like saying that Yarg is exactly the same as Wensleydale cheese. The term ’regional theatre’ is, in any case, a hotly contested one; not least because some think that it has derogatory connotations.
Of course, the terms really don’t matter a jot, and the problem with the word is not that regional can all too easily be emphasised with a London sneer, but that it simply doesn’t reflect the richness, variety and scale of the theatre produced all over the UK. Whether that is theatre made in the UK’s most northerly arts centre in Lyth in Scotland, the shows that come out of a tiny venue like Alphabetti in Newcastle, or the work produced by big houses in Liverpool or Leeds.
This is crucial to remember at a moment when, as The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith says, it is “squeaky bum time” for theatre, and the government needs to take urgent action to save our industry, which is in crisis. To ignore that cry for help would be an act of cultural vandalism that will take many decades to repair.
I heard someone say the other day that theatres may all be weathering the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat. I think that’s true. Some vessels – particularly if you are a freelance artist or independent company – are leakier than others. But for theatre to survive and thrive and play its role in the country’s repair, we need the whole damn flotilla, from the bath tubs and inflatables to the oil tankers and everything in between.
That includes our regional theatres, which have a richness and complexity that not only serves their local communities, but which seeps into and enriches other communities and theatres all across the country.
The loss of any regional theatre, whether it is Nuffield Southampton announcing it has gone into administration or the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh taking the painful decision to hibernate until next spring, is an immediate tragedy for that local community. But it has consequences beyond the immediate loss of art, including the damage done to the social fabric of that place and the local economy.
As Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool – a city that has seen what culture can do to create local pride – says: “Culture is the rocket fuel of the economy.” Liverpool’s cultural sector tells us who the city is as much as its football team does.
The loss of a single regional theatre also has an impact on the whole arts ecology and the diversity of the work that will be made in the future. That’s particularly true when the future is likely to include many more co-productions and partner venues.
London theatres are seldom – with a few notable exceptions such as the Bush and Battersea Arts Centre – distinctly embedded and totally reflective of the local area they are situated in. The Donmar Warehouse could be anywhere in London, and the National Theatre is not of the South Bank, it just happens to be situated there.
London theatres rarely take on the hue of the places in which they are situated or the spirit of that place in the way a great theatre out of London can and often does. I was talking recently with Adam Penford, artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, in the city in which he was born and raised, and he spoke of how what goes on stage must reflect the character of the city and its rebellious spirit.
That’s true of numerous theatres all across the UK. Every theatre is different in its reflections of the place and space in which it exists and the value that it holds for local communities. It is what makes each and every single one unique and special, not just within that local community but to the wider arts ecology.
A Kneehigh production may tour all over the world, but it is born out of the landscape and spirit of Cornwall, just as much of the theatre produced from the North East reflects that area of the country. It means we produce theatre and theatre artists whose work has a distinctive tang – a tang that often stays with them throughout their careers.
Nobody, least of all me, would deny that the National Theatre is a wonderful thing that serves a real purpose, and must be cherished and protected. Its National Theatre at Home digital programme has brought joy to millions across the world during lockdown. But I would also say that our real national theatre is to be found in the regional theatres, arts centres, fringe venues, local festivals and village halls that are found all across the UK, which are distinctive of space and place, and therefore distinctive in the work they produce.
The crisis faced by regional theatre may not grab the headlines like that of bigger, sexier theatres in London, but it is the bedrock of our theatre culture and a beacon for communities. Without it, we bleed.