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Campaign seeks to mobilise audiences in bid to save Britain’s regional theatres

Dame Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam West back the campaign

Pleas from actors and artistic directors to politicians to protect Britain’s rich local theatre heritage from cuts have largely fallen on deaf ears in recent months.

So a new campaign will attempt to “mobilise” audiences to target their local councillors and protest against slashes to regional theatre budgets, described as the “single biggest threat to the industry”.

Actors are set to give speeches from the stage when they take their curtain calls urging those in the auditorium to contact their local councillors to protest against the devastating budget cuts and support their local venues.

Some of the industry’s most famous names are backing the drive, in the hope the views of audiences will help sway those deciding on whether to bring down the axe on arts budgets.

Celebrated actors including Benedict Cumberbatch, Geoffrey Rush, Imelda Staunton, Sir Derek Jacobi and Emma Thompson have thrown their weight behind the drive. Dame Judi Dench said: “We should all fight to keep our local theatres, especially in difficult times. Once they are gone, they are usually gone for ever.”

The campaign, dubbed My Theatre Matters!, was drawn up by actors union Equity, the Theatrical Management Association, and the industry publication The Stage.

Actor Samuel West wanted to emphasise that it was not about “jobs for the boys,” which was why the campaign wanted to put the focus on audiences, rather than personalities.

He told The Independent: “It’s about keeping local theatre for the electorate. We need as many people as possible to say: ‘We value this resource. Don’t close it’. There must be a life to a city after the shops shut, and theatre is a big part of that.”

A website has been set up providing information on how the public can contact council leaders, as well as adverts in programmes and postcards that can be sent to local councils.

“We need to get as many postcards on as many council desks as possible, and get them down to the venues,” West said. “This is as important as the forests.”

“We can’t get all of our art online, we need to do things together. People will see things they have never experienced and like things they never thought possible. That can’t be allowed to disappear.”

Part of the reason to target the people who go to theatre was “so the politicians can’t just dismiss it as another ‘luvvie rant’,” one source close to the situation said.

Brian Attwood, editor of The Stage, called the local authority budget cuts the “single biggest threat currently facing our industry”.

Arts budget in Newcastle, Sheffield, Taunton and Westminster all face deep cuts. Despite some “enlightened councils” preserving the arts, Mr Attwood said, “we fear there also be many who see them as an easy target at a time of cuts.”

At an event highlighting the plight of the industry in November, regional theatre chiefs said they had been left bewildered that politicians continued to ignore them, even when they made a compelling cultural, and even economic case.

West continued: “A theatre doesn’t just touch the people who work there and the people who go, it is all those who provide services around, the restaurant, pubs and taxis. It is a big community.”

“We can’t give up on imagination and creativity because we’re looking at the profits,” he continued. “It’s what makes us who we are.”

Rachel Tackley, TMA president, said: “It seems theatres are increasingly seen by decision makers as a luxury, not the beating heart of a community providing benefits for everyone from cradle to grave.”

Tamsin Greig said: “Local theatres are good for communities artistically, socially, imaginatively, and financially. Their impact is deemed unquantifiable, yet is in fact priceless.”

While West wanted to focus on the experience of those watching, he pointed out that a generation of artists will suffer.

His standout theatrical experience of 2012 was the Olympic opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry who both started off in regional theatre. “What happens to the next person who would be Stephen Daldry if there’s no theatre or youth theatre? These people won’t exist.”