Even the most philistine of governments would not wish to go down in history as the one which allowed the Arts’ “crown jewels”—the RSC, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, The Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, the Royal Albert Hall and so on—to perish under their stewardship, but which other organisations will survive the current crisis?
Philip Fisher’s recent article, Decimation of the Theatre Industry, presents a horrifying but all too likely picture of what the industry will be like in the coming years. The loss of a tenth of the nation’s theatres, especially those outside of London, would be a body blow from which it will take years, probably decades, to recover.
My own concern, I have to say, is not for London theatre but for theatre in what at one time was patronisingly referred to as “the provinces” and now, with a little less metropolitan condescension but still rather dismissively, as “the regions”, that area beyond the M25 which is seen as the training ground for the real theatre business—the West End, the National and the RSC—where a successful theatre career is seen, in this London-centric view, as necessitating moving to the capital.
It is very important, even vital, that we should understand that it is not those receiving houses which bring West End shows (or even the RSC or the National) to those outside of London (often at a considerable cost in terms of ticket prices) which are at the centre of their local communities and must survive the pandemic.
No, it is those theatres which have positioned themselves in the heart of their communities, where the general public feel an ownership—“our theatre”—where people pop in for a drink or a meal, where the kids come for dance classes or to take part in the youth theatre, where year after year families book the same panto seats on the same dates, where people can honestly say, “my grandparents used to bring me to the panto here and now I’m bringing my grandkids.”
They are the theatres in which the bar is open after the show, where there is no sense of “you’ve seen the show; now go home,” where the staff are not waiting—and eager!—to usher the audience out and close and lock the doors behind the last to leave.
They are the theatres where the local authority needs no persuasion to continue funding even in the toughest of times, where you are as likely to see the Mayor or the local MP in the audience as a shopkeeper or teacher, where the top man or woman is recognised, not by bow-tie or formal dress, but because they are an integral part of local society, people to be greeted with a cheery wave and not a politely murmured “good evening”.
They are the theatres which local amateur companies hire to accommodate as wide an audience for their shows as possible.
Or they are the cultural centres, where you’ll find the local writers and musicians, the poets and actors, and those who love their work talking and sharing ideas in the bar, a place to relax and enjoy the shared culture, where you are as likely to find a writer tapping away at a keyboard or to see someone curled up on a chair enjoying a good book or an actor learning lines as you are to see someone simply relaxing over a drink. It’s a place to which members of local theatre companies head when rehearsals are over.
These theatres have writers’ groups. They offer opportunities for emerging directors and other creatives, for actors at the start of their careers.
And all of these kinds of theatres allow people to see exciting work at a fraction of the cost of a round of drinks at the local commercial receiving house and they can be found throughout the country. Some are Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations, some are not, but they are valued by their communities and often those communities will try to support their financial survival if they possibly can.
Here in the North East, I can name quite a number of these jewels in our local theatrical crown and I am sure my BTG colleagues all over the country will be able to do the same in their areas.
And we can all guarantee that not one penny of the DCMS £1.57b will come their way.