The capital’s audiences have enjoyed a golden age of drama recently but elsewhere the picture is less rosy. Fiery Angel’s Edward Snape urges the Arts Council to put its money where its mouth is and fund regional touring
With 14 consecutive years of record box office takings, it has long been claimed that we are enjoying a golden age of London theatre. More recently, it has also been a golden age in the capital when it comes to quality drama. But I don’t think you can say the same for the rest of the UK.
It has been hugely exciting to witness the increasingly ambitious work that commercial producers have been able to bring to the West End. Often, these have been direct transfers from the vibrant subsidised sector, from great producing theatres such as the National, Bristol Old Vic, Almeida and Young Vic.
At Fiery Angel, we have been part of a group of independent commercial producers who have helped bring shows such as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Mary Stuart and the forthcoming Home, I’m Darling into London’s commercial sphere. Other producers have done similarly great work with The Inheritance, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, The Jungle, Caroline, Or Change, Imperium and The Lehman Trilogy, to name but a few. It’s an extraordinary dynamic and challenging list, most of which would not be considered overtly ‘commercial’.
But the plight of regional theatre and, in particular, the lack of quality touring drama is in stark contrast to the rosy picture in Theatreland. Richard Eyre, Cameron Mackintosh and Jonathan Church, among others, have recently raised real concerns that all is not well in the regions.
While there is a good level of quality dance and opera available within the touring circuit and musical theatre mega-brands are touring in abundance, the same can’t be said for first-class touring drama.
Mackintosh is right to say that more money needs to be poured into key regional producing theatres, but on its own this will once again lead to wide variations between the towns and cities that are lucky enough to have a producing theatre on their doorstep and those that aren’t.
A proper touring strategy is required to join up the rest of the country with the dynamic drama that is available to Londoners and audiences lucky enough to be in the catchment areas of the key regional producing houses such as Bristol Old Vic, Leicester Curve, Chichester Festival Theatre, Northampton Royal, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Nottingham Playhouse, Theatr Clwyd and Edinburgh Lyceum among others.
London theatre is thriving because commercial producers are working together with subsidised theatres, ensuring that the superb new plays and revivals created by presenting houses are seen by a wider London audience. But, while there is real appetite for quality drama from venues across the UK, there is a lack of strategy and support to deliver that work.
The reasons for this are two-fold:
First, most actors, high profile or not, seem to dislike the concept of touring, with performers such as Ian McKellen being among a few rather marvellous exceptions. Indeed, McKellen’s announcement of his 80-date tour to celebrate his 80th birthday is an extraordinary commitment and should be celebrated. But otherwise, for most well-known actors, a short tour of maybe three weeks seems just about possible pre or post a London season.
Because of this, too many of London’s exciting plays – which often require a name of some profile to help them sell tickets – are never seen more widely across the UK. On the rare occasions when a star can be convinced to tour, they are much more likely to be secured at a late stage. By this time the risks for both theatre and producer might have been considered too great and the project evaporated.
This links to the second problem: the lack of collaboration between Arts Council England and commercial producers willing to work together on financial models that allow commercial investment to sit side by side with public subsidy.
A consistent supply of quality drama for the next three to five years is urgently needed to reverse the deteriorating position. There has been real success in dance with such initiatives as Dance Consortium. Could Arts Council England consider a similar commitment and priority for drama? Here is one thought for a partial solution.
Touring a play feels tough to commercial producers like me because of the lack of quality touring drama over the past decade. Audiences have dwindled and we have found ourselves in a vicious circle with presenting theatres starved of good plays and therefore starved of the ability to attract the kind of audiences who want to see good plays. The recently introduced Theatre Tax Credit is a definite help, but still too many great plays are not being taken on the road.
Enterprising producers could be incentivised to take greater risks if they knew there was support – some kind of safety net – from the Arts Council. Specifically, the funding body could offer a partial guarantee against loss. What became of BOP Consulting and Graham Devlin’s 2016 Arts Council England Analysis of Theatre in England Report? Along with highlighting the need for a touring strategy, the report suggested the development of more subsidised/commercial collaborations and encouraged some form of underpinning investment from the Arts Council, which might be returned along with a share of any profit.
To give a theoretical example, a production opens with great success at a London or regional producing house. All involved are keen to pursue a future life, including a commercial producer, and venues are keen to book a tour. However, when remounting and weekly running costs are juxtaposed against the box office splits offered by the venues, it leaves a level of uncomfortable financial risk for the commercial partner. This is where the Arts Council could crucially intervene to underwrite that risk and make the tour happen. If sales are better than expected, the support might not in the end be needed or, if it does extremely well, the Arts Council might actually make a return on its investment. This could then be used for other productions or be passed to the original subsidised producing house.
This would be a huge move forward from the current situation where you either apply to the Arts Council on the assumption that subsidy is essential, or you are regarded as being ‘too commercial’ to warrant support. If only life were as black and white as this.
The speed with which ACE is able to make decisions also needs a gear change for this plan to work. Producers need to move quickly to grab touring opportunities as they come up. To keep momentum on a project, venues require commitments to their programming often a year in advance, actors and other members of the original company may be under pressure to take work elsewhere and the heat of a production’s initial run can be crucial in marketing a subsequent tour. While appreciating that use of public money needs proper scrutiny, a fast-track mechanism would facilitate more projects and ensure that the Arts Council makes its initial subsidy work harder: work it has already funded would be seen by more people across the UK.
We also have to somehow make touring more desirable to actors and fellow theatremakers. We may have to find ways to pay key performers more money and improve the touring experience, but this will – of course – need covering by an increase in income. Will the Arts Council, theatres and producers be prepared to stomach such costs? If there are the relatively generous sums available to fund major touring opera and dance, then surely we need and should be expected to do whatever it takes to kick-start more high-quality drama touring.
The Arts Council’s mission statement is “great art for everyone”. We independent producers have already shown how we can help bring great drama to wider audiences in London. Isn’t it time the Arts Council thought about how we might be able to help it deliver its mission to audiences around the rest of the UK, too?