Great British repertory tradition 'at risk': John Arlidge visits Watford's Palace Theatre, which fears that losing its grant will force it to abandon innovative productions, or to close

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the theatres believed to have been targeted by the Arts Council could be forced to close if it loses its grant, staff warned yesterday.

Lou Stein, artistic director of the Palace in Watford, said that if the theatre's pounds 200,000 annual grant was cut, it would have to abandon its commitment to innovative productions and could eventually be forced to shut.

'We have always been willing to take risks, giving young directors and actors a chance. It is part of our ethos,' he said. 'We would have to play things safer in future.

'We have only done one Willy Russell in the last six years. Willy Russell is a very good writer, people like his work and his productions make a lot of money. But there are times when there has been overkill - 16 theatres doing Educating Rita at the same time.

'We do not want to have to find ourselves doing the same or hosting the Chippendales. We want to continue our expansion into contemporary dance and alternative comedy.'

The theatre receives pounds 200,000 each year from Watford Borough Council - matching that from the Arts Council - and makes more than pounds 500,000 in ticket sales. It employs about 90 staff.

Subsidies were a vital part of cultural life, Mr Stein said. 'The repertory theatre system is one of the things that makes the arts in Britain unique. It is part of our national heritage. People and productions rise up through rep theatres to become well-known. Tony Slattery and Anita Dobson played here before they became household names. Our latest production, Salsa Celestina, for which we got a pounds 25,000 grant from the Arts Council to help fund the use of a live band, was home grown and now leading producers are taking an interest in it.

'Rep theatre survives through subsidies as the bottom layer of a very delicate interdependent system. If you remove that layer the whole system could collapse. If, in 20 years' time, we find ourselves asking why British acting is so poor or where that big British film is going to come from, it could well be because of the decline of the rep theatre.'

Workshop programmes for young people and transfers from the West End would have to be cut. A planned tour with the Cambridge Theatre Company would be threatened. Fiona Gasper, general manager, added: 'In terms of overall government spending, pounds 1.5m is very small, a peanut. But the effects of cutting would be much more than peanuts. We, like everyone else, know that times are difficult. We have had to cut our costs to the bone and maximise earned income and private sponsorship. But in terms of the overall life of the nation, cutting pounds 1.5m will not be a saving at all. In the end we will all be impoverished.

'The important thing is to step up efforts to force the Government to reverse the planned reduction in the funds they give to the Arts Council.'

Although managers are anxiously awaiting the council's decision later this year, they say they are determined to fight any cuts. Mr Stein said: 'Historically, the theatre has been marked by crisis, adaptation and, in some way or other, survival. We will do our utmost to ensure that we have a future.'

(Photograph omitted)