A year after his departure from Exeter Northcott Theatre, Paul Jepson says regional theatre is in a worsening state and we need to act before it is too late
It is a year since I left Exeter Northcott Theatre as its artistic and executive director. At the time, I wrote for this newspaper about the growing issues facing regional theatre. I’m writing now because those problems have worsened.
During my time at Northcott, I was chuffed that we had managed to produce or co-produce three shows a year. It half killed us, but we did it. Our audience recognised that we were producing and they supported us. By the time I left, occupancy was above 72% and the place was buzzing.
I loved running a theatre. It was the best thing in the world. But people quite often asked me why we produced, given it is so hard. My response? It’s what we’re for.
When I started directing, a small regional theatre would do nine shows and a Christmas show. Nowadays, they’d be lucky if they do three and they’ll likely all be co-produced. And that includes some of the bigger regional theatres.
I look at all the season announcements when they come out, see how many shows there are and what they are. In several cases, regional theatre production output has shrunk dramatically between this autumn and last. As have cast sizes. The title choices have also become significantly more commercial.
I am not criticising anyone or pointing the finger. Arts Council England remains a major supporter of the network. Theatre is a significant beneficiary of the ACE pie. But something appears to be happening in regional theatre that – depending on your point of view – is either interesting or scary.
Back in the old days (of Mrs Thatcher and the decimation of heavy industry – not those of post-war Labour) in each of the smaller regional theatres there was an education programme, a youth theatre and an associate or two. Now, this is not necessarily the case.
One of my colleagues, along with his senior producer, recently entered a marathon to raise funds for the education and outreach department. Rather like head teachers doing a sponsored cycle through the Alps to raise money for chemistry text books, regional theatre leaders are out to raise cash for programmes that will otherwise be cut.
For some time it has been assumed that regional theatres are the main drivers behind: providing employment for young actors and to develop a range of techniques, career development for creative teams, skilling-up technicians, commissioning and identifying writing talent and contributing to the custodianship of the canon. A further key aspiration has become the need to drive diversity.
At the same time they have satisfied a variety of aspirations on the part of the audience: the first place for many to see a play, musical, pantomime, ballet, opera or contemporary dance. They are the people who turn up at schools to inspire and teach with performance. It’s the place where anyone and everyone can go to be part of theatre.
A reduction from nine self-originated shows to three co-productions, and from casts of 10 to casts of five, will result in the employment of actors alone being cut from 90 to 15.
Where there were nine jobs for creatives there is now one and a half. Where there was a fully staffed stage management team and workshop, there are now four-and-a-half short-term freelance jobs. It is tricky doing Shakespeare with three actors. Not impossible – it’s great to be avant garde – but tricky.
It goes on. Where most schools once had access to professional actors and workshop leaders, now few do (a contributing factor to the collapse in take up for GCSE drama, perhaps?). And when they do, cuts to school budgets mean they don’t come to the theatre because they have to pay for the coach. When I ran the Northcott, the situation made me so angry that we paid for it.
It goes on. Time and again regional theatres have to cut their youth theatres or start charging. That’s fine in some circumstances, but not in others. Very few theatres have meaningful associate programmes – where people can actually have their work programmed. There is a lot of ‘career development’, which can be code for coffee and a chat.
The shrinking, crumbling regional network has become increasingly unable to support the aspirations of the founding generation. But does it matter?
‘There is a real risk, a potentially catastrophic risk, to the talent development pathway.’
If you want to see Shakespeare, go to see it in Stratford-upon-Avon, at the National Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe (what about the cost?). Who needs the canon anyway (well, I think we do). Talented young creatives will work it out on the fringe (it costs £35,000 plus to put a show on) and they’ll work out how to work in a big theatre later (or not). You can get your first job assisting on a musical (there aren’t many openings and they’re not easy to come by). We can tour the work (except touring tends to do badly at venues that don’t have a solid theatre audience – and the venues that have a solid theatre audience tend to be producing theatres).
Why see the tour of a show if you can see a relay of it? There is a worrying recent record of failure for provincial touring versions of high-end London hits. People not only want theatre from a venue they trust, they also want to see work made near them with a connection to their lives.
New funded companies rely on venues to give them artistic guidance, help them open their shows and give them cash. At the Northcott, I had a simple attitude to associate companies – find the best ones, get their work on, help them make their work better, help them clarify and hone their vision and give them cash. If you have no workshop you can’t do this. If you have no cash you can’t do this. It means more marathons. At least this generation of artistic leaders will avoid becoming a burden on the health service.
This last phenomenon is perhaps the most worrying. Bryony Kimmings and others have written eloquently on the importance of venues supporting new, cutting edge, high-quality touring work. The best way to do this is through soft deals, and the organisations best equipped to support the work and deliver an audience are those that can reach specific and diverse audience groups – producing theatres.
So, there is a real risk, a potentially catastrophic risk, to the talent development pathway. I remember early on being told by the then artistic director of the National Theatre to go off and succeed in the regions. Fair enough, but where are you supposed to go to do this now?
Then there is the audience. My lot at the Northcott loved the place. They loved the work – well, not all of it. They loved the diversity of what was on offer. They loved to be challenged. We got good at getting them in. “The different and the many” as we called it. We targeted free tickets to first-time attendees who were under represented. Half of whom then went off to buy tickets to other shows. They felt ownership and pride.
It is time to ask some questions: can regional theatres continue to match these aspirations? Are the aspirations necessary or appropriate? If aspirations have changed, how? If other types of organisation are better placed to fulfil some or all of these objectives, what are they and which can they meet? Could diversity achievements be at risk? If it is a matter of cash should we step outside the current orthodoxy of creative solutions – money from elsewhere. Is it time to be bolder?
I would suggest that these questions need to be asked now. Before it is too late.
Paul Jepson former artistic director of Exeter Northcott Theatre, is a theatre director and writer