The Big Picture

Billed as a look at past and present theatre provision given changing demographics and targets, this began with architectural historian Alistair Fair looking back to 1976 and some very different theatres new that year—the National Theatre, Eden Court in Inverness and the Royal Exchange in Manchester—their different purposes, approach and funding. He then surveyed the changes since the 1948 Act that allowed councils to spend public money on culture and entertainment and the creation of the Arts Council in 1946.

Funding significantly increased under the Wilson administration; with Jennie Lee in charge, the arts became part of the welfare state. Repertory companies were stabilised by Arts Council and local grants, runs and rehearsal times increased and so did audiences. Civic venues had more extensive foyers: room for exhibitions and restaurants.

Fair quoted Michael Elliot declaring, “we should stop building for posterity,” a reaction against permanence, but then came a move towards the rehabilitation of older buildings as at York Theatre royal and Bristol Old Vic. There was a resurgence of touring in the mid 1970s and a move towards conservation, then growing awareness of theatres providing a public centre. The coming of the Lottery and changes to the subsidy regime brought new situations and new problems for civic theatres.

Stephen Hetherington, chairman of HQ Theatres Trust, looked at the relationship between public and private finance of theatre, seeing it as now a symbiotic part of our industry. Britain was late to accept state provision: when Sir John Soane’s collection was offered to the nation, the response was that there was no money available for “such nick-nacks.”

A parliamentary opponent of a National Theatre described it as a theatre “to produce plays which if they were produced by a private enterprise no-one would go.” Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre proprietors made and lost fortunes; it was avarice not art that drove them and they looked for royal protection rather than royal patronage.

Today, almost every theatre and theatre company is operated by a private company and the private sector provides 86% of theatre income. Receiving theatres get no subsidy except perhaps by way of a low rent or similar situation.

Julia Potts is UK Business Development Director of the Ambassador Theatre Group. It runs 41 British venues, 12 of them in London and many in partnership with local authorities and spends £20 million a year on improvements to preserve their long term futures. Do we have enough theatres? Yes was her answer. Are they in the right place? No. They have no proposals for new theatres at present but look out for possible opportunities.

You must match theatres and shows. Musicals are the most profitable shows and they are getting larger and heavier. There are only five theatres in the West End seating 2000 or more. In the provinces, they need to be in major population areas and, though the marketing potential of existing theatres may be excellent, they lack technical facilities.

ATG isn’t just out to make money. It wants the audience experience to be good, but this too is also restricted by the physical constraints of the building.

Theatre technology and audience expectation will continue to make new demands. What will be considered essential in the future?

Questions saw Hetherington pointing out the anomaly that council representatives often sat on civic theatre boards to represent council interests which is in direct opposition to the Company’s Act: they are supposed to do what is best for the company.

Theatres should seek a more symbiotic relationship with the education sector was one argument, with buildings made more accessible (a continuing cry throughout the day) and the need to put in more ways of generating income. A developer is thinking of other things in allocating space and watching land values rise.