If more performers who have used their celebrity platforms to warn of the industry crisis agreed to tour extensively outside London, it would reinvigorate regional theatres and attract audiences back, argues producer Richard Jordan
At home, I have a framed Norwich Theatre Royal programme from 1953. Back then, the front page was a drawing of its lobby entrance with a doorman on the steps and a sign saying: “All that is best and brightest”.
I have looked at that picture of the theatre in my home city a lot during these difficult months, worried whether this hallowed place that shaped my life would survive.
The only positive I can find during this period of darkness for our industry is the fact that it has brought sectors and individuals together in solidarity.
However, as we await information about how the industry’s share of the £1.57 billion arts rescue package is to be distributed, it’s critical that this unity is not lost. Across the industry, we must continue to work closely together towards its survival, recovery and future.
The recent outpourings from theatre stars about their love of the art form and need to protect our industry has been welcome and invaluable – but what happens next is critical.
Early on in the crisis, producer David Pugh, a long-time champion of regional theatre, tweeted: “When this is over, all we have to do is to take the elephant down the street and they’ll come flocking back”. It landed at the same time he and Nigel Havers announced they were forming a theatre company, with Havers and Patricia Hodge to star in its inaugural production, a UK tour of Private Lives.
In South Korea the driving factor for retaining audiences during the pandemic was that they did not want to miss out on seeing the headline stars
Havers has long been one of the region’s most bankable names. I was pleased that at the start of this crisis these three leading theatre names immediately made a commitment to touring. Both stars’ popularity on tour should eloquently put Pugh’s tweet into action.
That South Korea has kept its musical theatres open during the pandemic with capacity at 98% has partly been down to excellent safety measures in place to reassure audiences. But the driving factor for retaining spectators was that they did not want to miss out on seeing the headline stars perform in these productions.
What we need to do is consider how this model could be adapted, expanded and applied into the reopening and recovery of our theatres – about how we can build and renew attendance, especially at regional theatres. Potentially it could also be a valuable catalyst for attention and development on new work.
A star name doing a one-off ‘Conversation with’ event to help raise funds for a local theatre post-coronavirus is generous, but in the long term not enough. Star power can be influential in sustaining theatre and audiences, and actors need to be willing to appear in decent runs of productions at a wide range of venues.
Ian McKellen is already in rehearsal for Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor. Just imagine if David Tennant committed to a three-play season of new and classic works at Dundee Rep, Robert Lindsay to a play at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Helen Mirren at Birmingham Rep, Michael Ball in a new musical at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre.
What if Mark Rylance appeared in a Shakespeare play at York Theatre Royal, Ross Noble in a new comedy at Live Theatre Newcastle or James McAvoy in an experimental work at the Drum Theatre Plymouth? My list could go on, and that is just the actors…
Alongside this, wouldn’t it be great if famous actors agreed to make an ongoing commitment to touring outside London. Think about the excitement and interest this would generate. And it would be great if the castss featured both established and emerging talent, with everyone across a production working to a realistic and fair salary expectation.
Maybe this all sounds like a fantasy, but looking back at the history of Norwich Theatre Royal, there was a time when big stars regularly toured in this way, sometimes en route to the West End. This in turn built audiences and provided decent income that could be directed into supporting a theatre’s diverse mix of productions and local outreach projects.
When Ian McKellen played a season at West Yorkshire Playhouse, audiences came from home and abroad to see him
Thanks to movies such as the Harry Potter franchise and TV shows such as Downton Abbey, British actors have become hot property in Hollywood, but for theatre, this has led to actors and their agents favouring shorter London or New York runs between screen appearances.
The result is that many leading actors play the regions with less regularity, if at all, preferring instead to opt for a swift London engagement. Meanwhile, in the West End, a belief has grown among landlords that plays cannot run longer than 12 to 16 weeks. In previous decades, if a production were successful, it might extend and even change cast. Shorter engagements have also made recoupment more challenging and commercial producing far riskier.
All credit then to Imelda Staunton who committed to a 30-week West End run in Hello Dolly! before its postponement – but even that’s a long way from when Betty Buckley played Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Cats for 18 months.
Outside London, there is a proven link between theatre stars and tourism. When McKellen played a three-play season at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998, audiences came from home and abroad to see them. In turn, the city gained a welcome tourist boost.
The same would happen today if a major star appeared in a production at any of our regional theatres. And if this were a new work, it would be helping to maintain the lifeblood of our industry.
The road to recovery remains long, but out of this crisis comes a unique opportunity to reuse a proven model of invigoration from the past for a long-term solution. Those who rightly demanded attention for our industry from their celebrity platforms are essential in turning those warnings of failure into success.