Apart from venues which are funded for producing theatre (e.g. Live Theatre) or combined arts (e.g. The Customs House), there are only three theatre companies in the North East which are National Portfolio Organisations of Arts Council England. They are Lawnmowers in Gateshead, which is run by and for people with learning disabilities; Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington which produces theatre for children and is currently converting an existing building into a theatre which they call The Hullabaloon, and Zendeh, based in Newcastle, which creates cross art form productions. The only other non-building based NPO in the region is balletLORENT which, like Zendeh, operates from Newcastle’s Dance City, itself an NPO.
All the other NE theatre companies—and there are many—support themselves by occasional ACE Grants for the Arts funding, by some business sponsorship, by box office receipts and by some crowdfunding. Most of these companies are walking a financial tightrope.
There are essentially two kinds of company operating in the region: those which produce new work and those which take a more commercial approach, producing established plays with a middle of the road appeal.
There are three companies which follow the commercial route: Ion Productions in South Shields whose work over the years has included Educating Rita, Catherine Cookson’s The Cinder Path and Charley’s Aunt; Sunderland-based Theatre Space North East which specialises in performances in non-theatre locations, including a regular Shakespeare season in various parks in the city, and less is MORE Productions, based in Middlesbrough, whose productions in 2016 included Blithe Spirit and Chalet Lines. The latter two companies also present a new writing festival once a year.
The rest represent a wide range of different approaches to theatre. Théâtre Sans Frontières, based in Hexham, presents work by world authors in the original language, mainly French, Spanish and English, and tours to theatres, arts centres, schools and festivals in the UK and abroad, whilst The November Club (based Morpeth in Northumberland) produces site-specific shows exploring the stories of local communities.
Also in Northumberland is NTC, a small-scale touring theatre company, based at the Playhouse in Alnwick, which tours shows around the country, predominantly using village halls and community centres as venues in small rural towns and villages. Some years ago it was ACE funded but lost that funding in the last round of NPO appointments.
Inevitably most of the companies in the region are based on Tyneside. Women’s theatre company Open Clasp, which “collaborates with women on the margins of society to create theatre for personal, social and political change”, has had major success over the last few years with Key Change, which premièred in 2014 and toured to New York at the beginning of 2016 before another UK tour which included a performance in the House of Commons.
Also touring nationally were Greyscale, Unfolding Theatre and Zendeh, along with two companies which emerged from Northern Stage’s NORTH project, The Letter Room and Camisado Club.
Regularly touring throughout the region are Curious Monkey and Whitley Bay based Cloud Nine, and gaining more exposure during 2016 was The Six Twenty, whose music quiz/sketch show has been a regular at Live Theatre for a few years now.
Film and theatre company Twenty Seven Productions, which tends to use non-theatre spaces for its productions, brought Lee Mattinson’s play WYTCH to the Castle Keep in Newcastle.
South Shields has three companies, only one of which, Cranked Anvil, has toured this year. Made 4 Stage Productions focuses mainly on children’s productions for the Customs House, although this year it did produce one show aimed at adults, Being an Ultimate Warrior, which it is planning to tour in 2017. The third, Canny Craic, concentrates on workshops and theatre-in-education.
Elsewhere in the region there are fewer companies. In addition to the already mentioned less is MORE Teesside has OddManOut, based in Darlington, which, in addition to touring From There to You, From Here to Me in 2016, encourages new writing through scratch nights, and new company Steelworks, set up during the year by Teesside actor, writer and director Gordon Steel to tour his play Grow Up Grandad.
Then, in the depths of County Durham (Consett, to be exact) is Mad Alice Theatre Company which was founded in 2003 and so is one of the oldest small-scale touring companies in the region. In 2016 She Wins All the Races—A tragicomedy with Biscuits toured widely and will continue to do so until March 2017 and beyond (with one show booked for October).