At the end of one of those rare, long tedious nights in the theatre, some will inevitably moan that playwrights have a lot to answer for.
However, it still seems remarkable that the writers’ union, Writers Guild of Great Britain (“WGGB”), has felt compelled to issue a spirited defence of its members, following attacks suggesting that some of them are responsible for the theatre funding crisis.
As regular readers will know, the reason that theatres are underfunded and, in some cases, unfunded lies squarely with those that should be doing the funding. Primarily, this means Arts Council England and local authorities.
However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that, since the financial fortunes of bodies are effectively controlled by central government, fingers should be pointed directly at numerous Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Chancellors of the Exchequer, with a series of Prime Ministers also responsible for decisions that have threatened the futures of many theatres.
Theatregoers should offer grateful thanks to those at WGGB for an extremely well-researched piece that shines a light on the issues facing the industry, while unsurprisingly putting up a spirited riposte to those who unkindly attempt to tribute a significant portion of the blame to writers.
It is chastening to be reminded that councils such as Suffolk, Windsor and Maidenhead, Nottingham and Birmingham have either heavily cut or completely abandoned their cultural budgets, for the most part because they are or soon will be, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt.
We have all watched in horror as theatres such as Hampstead, The Gate and the Donmar, not to mention the English National Opera, lost 100% of their Arts Council England funding, although in the latter case it has been temporarily restored on condition that the company is effectively destroyed. Even many of the more fortunate such as the National Theatre have found their grants cut substantially.
The pandemic was a disaster, closing theatres temporarily and, for various reasons, leaving future audiences denuded, while the cost-of-living crisis has been difficult in two ways, making it harder to attract sponsorship and ticket income, while increasing costs disproportionately.
Many may not previously have realised that theatres such as the Royal Court, that bastion of new writing, have been obliged to conclude that “the business model which has supported the right to fail alongside success is no longer sustainable”. This frighteningly translates into risk-taking is no longer viable.
The catalyst for the WGGB article was the annual report from Hampstead, now not only de-funded but also stumbling along without the finances to pay for an Artistic Director. In its annual report, the theatre identified two productions, which it claimed contributed to large-scale financial losses.
Frankly, this is cynical scapegoating.
If nothing else, we now live in an age of directors’ theatre and therefore, when things on stage do not attract audiences, it is likely that the director is just as much at fault as the playwright. That is a debate for another day.
Writers will sometimes offer substandard or unpopular work. However, in such cases those running theatres should have the good sense and judgement to weed out work that will not appeal to their audiences.
This leads to another problem. Hampstead is not the only theatre that has been forced to retire the role of Artistic Director as a money-saving measure, meaning that those programming seasons may not have the necessary skill sets or experience to do so successfully.
There is one situation where a writer might genuinely be to blame. From long experience, there are occasional situations where new plays from major writers are announced long in advance, often without titles. In such cases, having promised to deliver wonderful new work they either fail to do so or delay completion way beyond the agreed deadline, leaving little time for a director to shape the piece and rehearse his or her cast. However, that must be a great rarity.
We live in a time when top playwrights are being seduced by other media, many disappearing forever to TV or film, and theatres are no longer able to offer adequate advances for commissions. Unless writers are supported, the theatre community could easily lose even more and be reduced to accepting the best of the rest, which may not be very good.
Therefore, we should listen to WGGB, support playwrights and hope that before too long, a government that is more sympathetic to the cultural industries might not only appear but also eke out a little bit of much-needed cash to support the sector.
The final word should go to WGGB General Secretary Ellie Peers. “Theatres are struggling, of that there is no doubt, but any attempt to blame playwrights and other artists is unfair and in fact counter-productive—they are the lifeblood of our world-renowned theatre sector, which would not exist without them.”