A dreadful performance

New Labour, supported with such hope by our cultural community, has got it badly wrong
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The Independent Culture
IN THE last week I have been asked repeatedly to defend my gloomy view of the future of British theatre. It is, unfortunately, as clear as can be. If things go on as they are, there will be a gentle but inexorable decline, less theatres up and down the country, smaller audiences, and a concentration on a few great flagship organisations (the National, the RSC, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Birmingham) supported by a Government that paradoxically is against elitism. In this new landscape, elitism will rule because theatre will inevitably be turned into a minority art - and an increasingly expensive one.

"Get what the market will bear," said Thatcher to the theatre world. "Lower your seat prices - be accessible," says New Labour. "But, by the way, there is no more money. Provide it by cuts. You ought to manage better." At the same time that they trumpet more money for the arts, the Independent Theatre Council records that "55 per cent of small and mid-scale companies are on standstill funding. For many of them, it is for the fifth or sixth year in a row". New Labour doesn't seem to notice the contradictions.

It seems Arts Council policy to provoke the end of many small theatres so that resources can be concentrated on the big boys. This is a terrible mistake. Great theatre has to be fed from unexpected sources. You cannot plan art into existence.

Drama is no longer taught in classrooms. Visits to good professional productions are now beyond the reach of most school children. Within 20 years, the taste for drama will have been diminished, even lost. Any art requires understanding. It pays back tenfold in inspiration what the spectator puts in in knowledge. Within 20 years, the small theatres up and down the country that develop new talent and - most importantly, new audiences - will probably be gone.

The problems of the theatre are spiritual as well as economic. New Labour, supported with such hope by our cultural community, has got it badly wrong. The Government began by cutting educational programmes in the arts. They are now neglecting the grass-roots of theatre while spending pounds 800m on the Dome. Yet while they neglect it, they never stop telling us what a fine job they are doing. Grants are increased, says the Minister. But by the time the increase has been processed through all the various quangos, it often ends up as less than inflation. Is this policy or a mistake? The gap between what is said to be done and what is actually done (the most characteristic failing of this Government) grows wider and wider. And without a coherent opposition, the case for anything "off-message" - and certainly the needs of the regional theatre - will never be put.

The Government makes great play about accessibility, educational schemes, low seat prices and all manner of outreach projects. They don't seem to recognise that all those laudable aims were invented and pursued in the Sixties. They were checked in the Seventies (by recession and Thatcher), starved in the Eighties and almost destroyed in the Nineties. The arts world doesn't need lecturing about what to do: they need the resources to enable them to do it.

When the entire Drama Panel of the Arts Council resigned last year because they were faced with a future of minimal influence, over 60 subsidised theatre directors out of a possible 65 met in London to support the Panel. As the current arts climate was discussed, one director pointed out that 30 to 40 per cent of the organisations represented were unlikely to be in existence in two years' time. The Government or the Arts Council has done nothing since to lighten this black prediction.

For some months, a group of leading artists (and there is almost no one of consequence who has not given support) have held meetings to consider the need for an Arts Rally - something like the Countryside Rally. The aim was to raise public consciousness about what is being done to our arts. However, as more and more bad news came in from educationalists and arts organisations, it was obvious that a rally was too general an aim. Something more specific had to be done.

It was therefore decided to form a Shadow Arts Council. Its organisation would be simple: a phone and fax number available to any journalist or member of the public who had a story of arts deprivation. Its aim would be to promote public discussion and co-ordinate the response of the artistic community. When the Government decides our children need less music in our schools, it is not left to Simon Rattle to fight the battle on his own.

There was an experienced voice at our meeting. "Don't," he said, "announce all the names of artists who are supporting this idea. Keep some of them as surprises because the Government will assuredly start to spin against every member the moment it is announced. By discrediting them, they will seek to marginalise them."

I found it hard to take this Kafkaesque reading of modern politics seriously, but now I'm not so sure. Subsequent events have proved to me the absolute necessity of this initiative.

The week before last, I used the Olivier Awards as a platform to announce the Shadow Arts Council. Within 10 minutes of stepping off the stage, I was being accused of sour grapes; the initiative was merely a personal response to the Arts Council's refusal of a grant to enable me to continue my work with a repertory company at the Old Vic (thank you, Chris Smith). By Monday, my criticisms were being dismissed as predictable and perennial whinge (thank you, Alan Howarth, on Today). The following day both jibes were combined in the same article (thank you, Melvyn Bragg, in The Guardian). In their alacrity to dismiss me, they don't seem to notice or care that the two accusations are mutually exclusive. Either I am a long-term and indiscriminate whinger or a slighted loser in this year's funding round - they should choose which. The absurdity of Melvyn's thesis was revealed by another full-page article on the same day in the same paper: "Arts Council of England Rhetoric - Pity About the Grants."

In the last week I have been overwhelmed by the supportive phone calls and faxes from regional theatres - and these are just the ones who happen to have my home numbers. Jill Frazer wrote from the Watermill Theatre, Newbury - a tiny but important powerhouse: "Our potential deficit this year is large - but it is not brought about by bad management but by gross under-funding which cannot be justified when the productivity of the theatre and the quality of the work is examined. Like many small organisations, we get sidelined in favour of the established clientele - but without support for us and our like, a vital course of bricks in the structure of theatre will be destroyed for good."

I had news from Alan Ayckbourn whose flourishing theatre (although the local authority won't admit it) has for years kept Scarborough on the map. In spite of Chris Smith's claims for a brave new world of subsidy, the actual increase to Scarborough is pounds 14,000. This 3.5 per cent means nothing after the years of Tory deprivation. Ayckbourn said: "I am in the process of again seeing how thinly I can spread the jam to maintain a viable operation and many of my plans are going to have to be altered and people disappointed.'

The story is the same everywhere. At Harrogate, at the insistence of the Yorkshire Arts Association, Sheena Wrigley was brought in as new management to sort the theatre out. She has succeeded remarkably and has been rewarded (again by the Yorkshire Arts Association) with an increased grant of pounds 5,300. This means they can do three productions a year plus the Pantomime, and their director, Bob Swain, is only needed for eight months of the year. His contract has been adjusted accordingly.

"The bad news continued from small theatres," Nicola Thorold, Director of the Independent Theatre Council said. "55 per cent of small and mid- scale companies are on standstill funding. For many of them it is for the fifth or sixth year in a row."

I believe that the new Arts Council has decided to let the delicate ecology of regional theatres wither. We are well into an agenda of neglect. What can be done? Use us at the Shadow Arts Council; write to your MP; write to Chris Smith. Every theatre whose increase in grant has been negligible should write to The Independent so that real facts can replace propaganda.

Noise will have to be the answer because noise can still be heard. We may not have much of an Opposition but we do, thank goodness, still live in a democracy where issues can be raised. We must all speak up to save the regional theatres. We must do it for our children.