NEW STAGES: THE NORTH-EAST

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Maybe it has something to do with the characteristic perversity of the region, but while the rest of the country's regional theatre network appears to be under intolerable strain, professional drama in the North- east is positively bursting with optimism. Quite apart from the resurgence of Northern Stage, a clutch of smaller companies are making positive noises.

Two years ago, Northern Arts decided it could no longer continue to give revenue-funding to separate companies for each of the five counties under its jurisdiction. The subsequent surgery proved unpopular but realists appreciated that cuts in funding had undermined both standards and possibilities for all the companies - employing more than three actors in a production was considered extravagant.

Northern Arts decided to introduce a franchise system, offering more generous revenue funding to just two companies, who would be expected to tour extensively within the region and elsewhere in the country. The beneficiaries were Live Theatre, which has its own home on Newcastle Quayside, and NTC Touring Theatre, which owns its Alnwick Playhouse base in Northumberland.

Born 22 years ago, Live Theatre has successfully produced shows that reflect life on Tyneside, often written by locally based writers like the late CP Taylor (And a Nightingale Sang) and the wickedly under-estimated Tom Hadaway, whose plays have variously examined life in the fishing industry, in which he once worked, in prison (he has been a writer-in-residence at Durham Jail where he came to know Judith Ward) and in the Middle East. The refurbished theatre reopenedwith a production of Close the Coalhouse Door, written by Alan Plater but based on short stories by the late Sid Chaplin, who worked in the County Durham mining industry before turning to writing.

Live has been accused of spending too much time contemplating the regional navel, but Max Roberts, a former actor with the company and now its director, is intent on broadening the company's horizons. Nevertheless, you're still likely to find plenty of grit under the company's dramatic fingernails. As Roberts says: "This company has always been about trying to present popular and accessible work to all the people of this region - and maybe we can flag that up again, and admit we are trying to reach working-class audiences."

If Live represents the urban face of North-east drama, NTC is there to satisfy the demands of rural theatre (by which is often meant village hall) networks on home ground and around the country. Under the guidance of artistic director Gillian Hambleton, it isn't afraid to get its wellies muddy with new and local writers. In five years at the helm, Hambleton - who has recently been co-directing Casement alongside Corin Redgrave at London's Riverside - has given the company fresh impetus and credibility and has plans to stage an open-air show on Lindisfarne (the island, not the band) to coincide with the UK Year of Visual Arts in the North in 1996.

One of the more extraordinary recent success stories has been that of Thatre sans Frontires. Created only four years ago and now based in the Northumberland town of Hexham, the company was formed by a group of English students in Paris, who mostly perform plays in French - Molire's The Miser and Charles Perrault's Bluebeard, with Dumas's The Black Tulip later this year. With their use of actors from different countries and their very physical approach to performance they are Theatre de Complicit writ small.

They are funded on a project by project basis, like Cleveland Theatre Company, which has turned its attentions to children's drama and Durham Theatre Company, which survives by attracting grants for a whole series of community drama.

Cliff Burnett of Durham Theatre Company has latterly taken to filling his stage with new technology. Performances (including a modern version of Romeo and Juliet called Sex and Suicide and a new play on the Dracula theme by Kitty Fitzgerald, Postcards from Transylvania) show simultaneous televisual transmissions of the performers on banks of monitors.

For Burnett, a script is just the starting point for the creation of a piece of theatre. The son of a South Shields miner, he is nevertheless scornful of what he calls the "Wor-Geordie's-down-the-pit-again" school of theatre. "We are looking at the Clause 4 of theatre and trying to re-write it for the times in which we live."

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