Regional theatre roundtable: When shall we three meet again?

As regional theatres face life-threatning cuts, Jonathan Church, artistic director of the Chichester Festival Theatre, Josie Rourke artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and Erica Whyman, deputy artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, tell Fiona Mountford about their vital magic

"My journey to the Olympic Opening Ceremony began at the Bolton Octagon," said Danny Boyle when he, Nicholas Hytner and the Artistic Directors of two dozen regional theatres gathered recently to flag up the gravity of the situation that is soon to face these cherished institutions.

Despite a glorious year for British culture in 2012, from Boyle’s pyrotechnics to the unprecedented large-scale success of the Cultural Olympiad, the future of arts funding has rarely looked so shaky. The impact of this on theatre, one of the few industries in which we can claim to be world leaders in the 21 century, could be calamitous.

Regional theatres are currently facing a crisis: ‘in-budget cuts’ – that is, within the framework of previously agreed funding arrangements - from both the Arts Council and their local authorities, on top of an average reduction of 7 per cent from the Arts Council in 2011-12.

Newcastle, for example, has pledged to cut 100 per cent of its arts money; Sheffield’s local authority is contemplating a figure of 20 per cent. In the last four years, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has lost a third of its local authority subsidy and is set to lose more. If we factor the effects of inflation into these figures, the numbers are even harsher.

To try to understand the implications of this, I travelled to Leicester to talk to the Artistic Director of the Curve Theatre, Paul Kerryson, and to  Sheffield to speak to Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres.

Better informed but considerably more concerned, I invited Jonathan Church, Artistic Director of Chichester Festival Theatre, Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse and formerly Associate Director at Sheffield Theatres and Erica Whyman, until this month Artistic Director of Northern Stage in Newcastle and now Deputy Artistic Director of the RSC, to join me at the National Theatre to discuss what all this will mean.

Fiona Mountford: Let’s start with something positive. What were your formative experiences of regional theatre?

Josie Rourke: Growing up in Manchester and going to the Royal Exchange to see Hedda Gabler. I had never seen a woman character like her. It was mind-blowing.

Erica Whyman: I saw The Wind in the Willows at the Sheffield Crucible when I was five and I hold it responsible for almost everything I’ve done in my life! I’ve carried with me that sense of a building, a ‘crucible’ is a very good word for it, which can hold a five-year-old having that experience for the first time and someone in their eighties coming to see a favourite play, and everyone in between.

Jonathan Church: I grew up watching Richard Eyre at Nottingham Playhouse and what he did with that programme was incredible. It was everything regional theatre could be.

FM: Break it down for us: what is 2013 going to be like for regional theatres?

JC: It’s going to be nerve-wracking for a lot of organisations. The next set of funding agreements is being started upon this autumn, which is always unnerving, and particularly in this climate. The other thing that is unnerving is that as a result of the Arts Council shake-up [the Arts Council suffered a 50 per cent administration cut] most of the people that most of us have talked to there are going. So who makes the decisions, given the decisions are going to be difficult…

EW: In a region like the North-East it’s very vivid, because senior decisions are going to be made in Manchester. The notion that Newcastle’s near Manchester is absurd, although it’s an absurdity held by quite a lot of people.

JC: I don’t think for audiences it’ll be much different. Most of what will be happening in 2013 has been in the pipeline.

EW: What often happens in these conversations, particularly at fiery times, is that we don’t say clearly enough how much brilliant work is being made. We mustn’t forget that one of the reasons there is so much passion in this debate is that right now we’re riding high. There is not a crisis in regional theatre. There is an impending crisis.

FM: In a line, do you think the very notion that the state should fund the arts is in jeopardy?

EW: It’s vulnerable at the moment.

FM: Where Newcastle leads, will other local authorities follow?

EW: It’s already happening that some of the major cities, mostly in the North, are starting to declare incredibly savage cuts. I think it’s important to say that whilst the arts cuts that are proposed in Newcastle are horrific, they’re not the half of it, because the local authority cuts the councillors are facing are beyond imagination. What Newcastle has said is, ‘If we are to balance our overall budget in 2015-6, there will be no more funding to the arts’.  Newcastle is not alone in facing the kind of issues that have led it to that decision.

JC: On a positive, there’s been massive turbulence in terms of who’s running organisations in this last year…

JR: I like to think of myself as the result of turbulence!

JC: … I think that’s very exciting because each of those people will be working very hard to make their organisations punch above their weight and deal with the cuts. A cut for one person is, for somebody else who has been working in a different way, their Christmas.

FM: What will Newcastle’s proposed cuts mean for theatre in the city?

EW: The damage to quality and diversity of experience on offer will be immediate. If they go ahead, by 2016-7 we’ll be talking about a programme across the three theatres where not very much is being produced, so the next Pitmen Painters is not on the slate, where the Theatre Royal can’t collaborate with the RSC.

FM: But will the three venues still be open?

EW: We often get ‘Is it going to close?’ If you cause that kind of trouble in the business model, which is based on making good quality work for a range of people, very quickly it doesn’t work as a business.

FM: What about the government’s insistence that philanthropy can replace subsidy?

JR: Much of my activity as an artistic director goes towards that [encouraging philanthropic giving]. I don’t see how funding money can be replaced with philanthropy. It’s just daft – and irritating – to say, ‘If you tried a bit harder..’, because there’s the implication that we don’t all try enormously hard and that it’s not three nights a week at least of my time that is spent going out for dinner with people, talking to people, maintaining those relationships.

EW: Absolutely. To raise in some cases tiny amounts of money still takes that amount of effort and energy.

JR: We’re not saying we wouldn’t like more support with how we do it or to have a very joined-up conversation with the Treasury and DCMS, but it’s being realistic about it. What I do find distressing is the characterisation that we’re all floating about, not thinking properly about it.

FM: Paul Kerryson at Leicester made an interesting point. He said that arts funding has always had good times and bad times, but we’re just in a particularly bad cycle at the moment…

JC: I’ve never known the savagery of local authority and Arts Council cuts at the same time. What we forget is how many theatres over the last 20 years have shut. Once an organisation closes, it’s very hard to go back up. It was the outer London ring that went first, Farnham, and now Guildford isn’t funded.

EW: There is a dark art at work, which is about not trusting public funding to be able to do anything that creates wealth. The case that we’ve been making for a really long time is that we turn public money into wealth for a place, but that wealth doesn’t necessarily turn up in business rates because we’re charitable businesses. It’s about how we affect the area around us, it’s about the jobs and that argument isn’t working with this government.

FM: But research has confirmed it time and again: for every £1 invested in the arts, £4 goes back into the local economy. Why does the government refuse to take note of this?

JC: That’s a general figure. Our specific figure is that for £2million of subsidy we generate £12million for the local economy. That was four years ago, so it’s probably more now.

EW: The government don’t see that money in taxes and we don’t show it as profit.

JC: Some of it’s political. To say, ‘We’re going to invest in a shipyard or a car plant’ makes very broad political sense. Everybody can go, ‘Yes, that’s a good thing’.

FM: But what about those verified figures concerning a theatre’s economic impact on its community?

EW: They haven’t got a box for the notion of making a product that costs more than you can earn directly from the product. To use the example of Northern Stage, it’s only got 450 seats, so even with a very big success you’re not talking about box office that can go into profit and that is just problematic. You can’t get past that with this government. In fact we’re very lean, we spend very little and we make a huge amount of things happen in terms of different kinds of activity. We generate jobs and what we’re saying is that without us, the visitor experience, the quality of experience in the city, would be really devastating, including economically.

JR: Would the BBC’s Media City have gone to my home town of Salford had the Lowry not opened so successfully there and Imperial War Museum North not been built on the opposite bank of the river? It’s hard to translate it when it’s not completely direct.

JC: Ironically our local authority, although it’s having revenue problems, has invested in our capital [infrastructure]. They’ve seen that as our audience has grown, more people are coming into the city, more people are using the shops, there are more restaurants opening. It’s physically been tangible in the last seven years. What’s tricky is that many of these local authorities are in the same position we are. It’s all about the philosophy: do you cut your way out of a hole or do you trade your way out? Everything stems from this decision and either it’s right or it’s completely wrong. I’m sure you know which side of the fence we’re on!

FM: There’s also the irrefutable argument that cultural investment has led to the regeneration of cities; Newcastle and Liverpool are shining examples of this?

EW: You only have to wander around Newcastle for 20 minutes to see the effect, to see it in the capital infrastructure. [Cultural investment in the Sage, Baltic and so on] has made it an incredibly beautiful city, but with great respect for its longer industrial past. It has genuinely attracted huge numbers of visitors. Ten years ago there wasn’t really a tourist economy going to Newcastle and Gateshead, but now you can see it in all the hotels. It’s so obvious that I really don’t know why people don’t grasp it.

JC: But politically, in this difficult time, who’s going to champion what is seen as an extra?

JR: But why is it an extra?

JC: The whole philanthropy argument is about not believing the state should pay for something that’s considered a minority activity. Whether it is a minority activity…

EW: What I think this government is doing well politically is speaking to a constituency of people who feel very threatened by their own economic circumstances and playing it back to them as, ‘You don’t want us to spend a penny of your money on anything that isn’t essential to your life’. I find that very difficult, and somewhat morally dubious. Eric Pickles said in response to the Newcastle proposition that he was pleased it was the arts, because it could have been old people. I think this is a very unhelpful polarisation of the debate.

JC: If suddenly at the next election there’s a different government, in the current circumstance can or will anybody choose to change [the current stance on the arts]? That’s the bigger thing that worries me.

JR: It’s an argument that in the end eats itself. ‘The arts is a minority activity’, but if you take it out of the curriculum it will be. Make it a majority activity.

FM: One could argue that 1946 wasn’t the best time to set up an Arts Council, but the Attlee administration believed that it was a force for the good…

JC: The vision that created it has been forgotten and we’ve all been culpable. We’ve lost the purity of ‘We want every city to have access to high quality art and drama’. We’ve jumped through funding hoops, we’ve become more community-based, we’ve ticked the education box to get extra funding because that’s what local authorities want.

FM: One hears a lot about the London-centricness of the theatre world. Are these cuts going to lead to more of that? And how bad is the situation currently?

EW: There’s a notion that if you really cared about culture you’d just get yourself to London. It’s a deeply patronising attitude when rail fares are rocketing. Look, it’s bad, it’s tough. It’s tough partly because you can’t get enough attention and attention is the fuel of actors’ and directors’ careers, so in order to have quality artists in your building you need to be able to have attention. For audiences to feel that they are connected to our culture as a nation, there needs to be some attention. It’s partly because print media is going through a huge shift, but it is terribly hard to get enough attention paid. We had the premiere of a work by Will Eno, a New York writer and it just so happened that in that month there was a lot of press saying regional theatres weren’t doing any interesting new work. Only one reviewer came to see it. Nobody notices you’ve done it and that is problematic.

JC: It’s slightly masked by the fact that it always feels as though there are a couple of regional theatres blessed with that attention.

FM: If we grind on in the way we are doing now, how will the landscape of regional theatre look in five years’ time?

JC: There may well be a number of theatres that close. The thing that nobody in politics really understands if there’s a touring theatre in your town, why do you need a producing theatre? But the big thing that will change is who’s running these organisations. One of the hidden successes of that Labour investment in the arts – and the three of us are products of this – is that it made regional theatres places where you could dream and create ambitious work. It gave us all hope. I don’t believe any of us would have gone on to run the regional theatres we did without it. I’ll say this on their behalf: would Gemma Bodinetz [Liverpool], Tom Morris [Bristol] or Daniel Evans [Sheffield] have gone to a theatre in a funding crisis? I’m not sure they would.

EW: I do think it’s going to be very difficult to attract the same kind of breadth of talent to the major regional theatres. Where I have some hope is I think there’s a lot of determination to make things happen on a shoestring coming from the ground roots. So in small-scale work, more daring work, we’ll probably have quite a fertile few years. But whether any of that work will have the resources to get onto a major stage or find a major audience and therefore make the case for continued subsidy…

JC: That’s the other thing that’s very hard to argue because it’s so nebulous: that subsidy can allow risk. When theatres are in crisis, sometimes what you need most at those moments is a big risk. Theatres need to invest whatever money they have wisely, which isn’t always cautiously. At their best, the Arts Council has encouraged this.

FM: Otherwise the danger might be, in tough times, that theatres just stage The Importance of Being Earnest ad infinitum.

JR: The great truth about theatre is that you never know what’s going to be a hit. If I went, ‘I’ve got a 1000-page French novel in which almost everybody dies and I think it’s a musical…’

FM: Is there more that regional theatres could be doing to help themselves? There’s often the suggestion they could do more co-productions, for example…

JC: There are always examples of theatres that you think could do more, but you can’t generalise.

EW: The theatre sector, and if it could be across the borders with Wales and Scotland all the better, needs to do more to work together to save the whole infrastructure. For example, Northern Stage set up a venue in Edinburgh, with very small-scale work from across the North of England. We curated it, which gave people a sense of artistic status within a very big festival, so we were addressing the question of attention, but also we used a small pot of public money. By filtering that through Northern Stage, we could make it go much further. So it’s really basic things about sharing our resources. I think organisations like the RSC and the National have onerous responsibilities right now to look at how we really do connect across the country.

JR: Can I say something about co-productions? Often they’re more expensive than just doing them. The main expense of a production is the cost of actors and by taking it on somewhere else you’re simply clocking up more acting weeks. A co-production sounds like you’re all splitting the cost of a meal and it’s not a meal.

JC: The danger is that co-productions are homogenising. What regional theatres do best, when they’re firing on all cylinders, is appeal to their local audience. If it becomes about cost-saving and you’re losing the specificity, then you might just as well have a touring network of theatres and somebody in London creating work that goes out.

JR: It’s also a responsibility of artistic directors to understand money as well. Thank God I’m the daughter of a chartered accountant.

EW: The notion that artists, particularly in the performing arts, waft about is nonsense.  You can’t make the kind of complex collaborative work that we make in the theatre without having a very strong sense of resource limitations.

FM: I think we’ve made it abundantly clear that many problems lie ahead. But let’s end on a brighter note. Give me some reasons why we should be optimistic about the future of regional theatre…

JC: I think there are really great people running them and great people working within them, with enormous skills and passion. There’s a lot of talk about accountability: we have a contract where on the night we say we’re going to have something ready it is ready and we put it in front of the audience and we do that 365 nights of the year. Most other industries don’t actually manage that! And most of those industries are better paid to do it.

JR: I’ve just spent this afternoon interviewing eight new-ish directors for our Resident Assistant Director Scheme, which is an annual bursary. I trained on it, in fact. I’ll be hard pressed to know which one to appoint, because they are eight absolutely terrific young people who speak about the theatre and its importance and significance in their lives and other people’s lives with a clear-eyed passion that makes me feel fantastic about the potential there is. One of the privileges of subsidy is that it allows us to go away and for other people to take our jobs, for creative renewal. That’s great about our culture. I think that’s really cause for hope.

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