Philip Hensher: You can't run a regional theatre from London

This ferocious plan ignores the fact that Bristol Old Vic has a primary relationship with its local audience
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The Independent Online

When the same story seems to be wearily repeating itself, it's tempting to put the whole thing into the box marked "Dog bites man" and ignore it. "Doubt over regional theatre's future" is just one of these stories; type the four key words into Google and it effortlessly produces nearly 2 million results.

Indifference will easily overlook the fact that many of those stories refer to very individual stories of tragedy and neglect. Whatever funding bodies may choose to think, "regional theatre" is not a unified thing. A regional theatre will have its own flavour, its own history, and its own place in the community. They can't all be run in the same way, and they can't be replaced by another theatre 50 or 100 miles away. Each problem represents not a small national loss, but a major loss to its local audience.

The latest example of this recurrent story is at the Bristol Old Vic. It's a remarkable operation. It occupies what is said to be the oldest continually operating theatre in Britain, the 1766 Theatre Royal, and for decades has carved out a unique role in British theatrical life. In 1946 it was affiliated to the Old Vic in London, and a theatre school was attached to the institution. Giving actors and technical staff an apprenticeship, the theatre school has a list of alumni over the past 60 years which reads like a Who's Who of the dramatic arts in this country, from Patricia Routledge to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Something very peculiar happened during the summer. The board of the theatre abruptly announced that the theatre was to close at once for a refurbishment programme. The autumn season, which had already been announced, was cancelled. Explanations for this apparent panic were generally viewed as unconvincing and implausible; some people started to wonder whether the theatre would, in fact, ever open again.

Arts Council England have now offered £2m towards the refurbishment to add to £1m provisionally on the table from civic sources. According to the plan, circulated by Equity, which is opposed to the details, some significant changes must be agreed to the running of the theatre in future if the money is to be awarded. These changes strike me as short-sighted and unimaginative in the extreme.

In the first place, there is to be no artistic director, but merely an "executive director". The season will include only three in-house productions from the hands of external associate directors, with no permanent stake in Bristol. An additional 10 weeks will be handed over to external companies, and five weeks to – of course – "educational work". There must also be a panto – "not necessarily a BOV production".

As an alarmed actor friend of mine observes, this is to treat a great theatre as nothing more than "a business and educational resource", and we all know how very exciting the paying public tends to find those. The model about to be imposed on the theatre looks very much like a "one-size-fits-all" idea. In another instance, the theatre at Leicester has had just such an "executive director" parachuted in. You will not be surprised to learn that, according to Equity, which held a protest meeting over these proposals on Sunday, this new director is being paid £20,000 more than the old artistic director.

No one doubts that Bristol, like many regional theatres, has faced considerable difficulties in recent years. But this ferocious plan ignores the fact that it, like all regional theatres, has a primary relationship with its local audience. The civic pride taken in the local theatre, especially one with the history and distinction of the Bristol Old Vic, is the inalienable source of any future success. Its problems have to be solved with local solutions.

To take another example, I observed with close interest the excitement which re-animated the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield when it appointed an artistic director, Sam West, who was prepared to invest his time and energy in the local community. Many people who hadn't been to the theatre in years gave it another go, and became regulars. The sense of commitment there, in my view, just can't be replaced by people, however distinguished, coming down from London on an ad-hoc basis.

There seems very little awareness of the value of that. Mr West has now gone, through, I believe, no wish of his own, and the future of the Sheffield theatre is once again in the balance. I don't want to add to the conventional narratives of brave little creative artist versus cruel unthinking bureaucrat, but in some cases, it is hard to know how else to read a story.

It seems quite probable that the problems of evidently competent and imaginative organisations like the Bristol Old Vic have sprung not from their own incapacity, but from trying to satisfy the demands of central funding organisations. From that perspective, it seems very unlikely that its problems will be solved by increasing those demands, and running the whole thing from a remote location. Can the commitment of the people of Bristol really be increased by convincing them that control is being moved away from their community?

What appears lacking in these plans is an awareness from central funding that Bristol is not like Leicester, which is not like Sheffield. The solutions being put forward appear to come from a manual called How To Run A Regional Theatre. Perhaps we shouldn't underestimate the exasperation felt by the Arts Council, but it seems quite misplaced. Before anything else, they should really insist on a Bristol solution to a Bristol problem.