Culture: Why small theatres shouldn't get hand-outs

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The Independent Culture

Britain's luvvies are up in arms at the Arts Council's proposed funding cuts to various regional theatres. They are concerned that many of the venues that depend on Arts Council subsidies – such as the Bristol Old Vic, the Northcott Theatre in Exeter and the Bush — will be forced to close if their annual grants are cut.

I'm sceptical about this. Surely the theatres in question will only go out of business if they continue to put on plays that fail to capture the public's imagination. It is only because they don't sell enough tickets that they're forced to depend on hand-outs. If their artistic directors were a little more in touch with the taste of ordinary theatre-goers, their survival wouldn't be in jeopardy.

The standard reply to this argument is that adopting such a commercial approach would lead to the end of the risk-taking that is a necessary condition of creative vitality.

In this light, subsidised theatres are the laboratories in which young writers and innovative directors are free to experiment. The vast majority of these productions will fail to put bums on seats, but some will be such artistic successes that they will go on to play to packed houses in the West End. A case in point is Jerry Springer: The Opera (pictured), which opened at the heavily subsidised Battersea Arts Centre.

I'm not convinced by this. Take the Menier Chocolate Factory. This 200-seat venue, which opened in 2004, is among the most successful fringe theatres in the UK, yet it has never received a penny of public funding. The production of Dealer's Choice currently playing at Trafalgar Studios began life at the Menier, as did the production of Sunday in the Park With George set to open on Broadway. It's latest production – a revival of La Cage aux Folles – has received glowing reviews and will almost certainly transfer to the West End later this year.

While the Menier's success can partly be chalked up to the entrepreneurial zeal of its founders, David Babani and Danielle Tarento, it also finds space for new work. In 2005, a play by Ryan Craig called What We Did to Weinstein was shortlisted for the Evening Standard's "Most Promising Playwright" award. Would the Menier have been so artistically successful had its directors had the safety net of a grant?

The real dispute here isn't between commercially minded philistines and high-minded theatre-lovers. Rather, the issue turns on who you consider the best judges of artistic merit: the theatre-going public or a bunch of Government-appointed apparatchiks. The Menier's success suggests it should be the former.

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