Rejuvenating Local Theatre

What do you do when it feels as though the support and enthusiasm for local theatre or Arts Centre begins dry up?

Firstly look at those who are at the helm of the organisation, those on the board, staff, anyone who has any influence. Their experience may well be credible; their past work to forward the organisation may be extensive, and above all they could be a decent human being.

But how long have they been there? How long have they have been doing what they are doing? It may not be their experience that’s the problem it may just be that things have gone stale. Maybe they have done so much that the ideas have dried up or their own enthusiasm away from the public eye may have gone. This is ok, it’s a perfectly normal thing to happen as human beings as long as you know that is the time to move on and do something about it, rather than just stay because nobody else will do the job.

Next look at the program you are offering the community, as well as the methods of advertising. If you are a volunteer run theatre then ideas should be coming from volunteers, the advertising and marketing should be supported by the volunteers. If this is not happening then you need ask why the volunteers don’t support the programme, maybe a review on the program is needed. Whatever you put in your program should be fully supported by the volunteers.

Next is to look at is the volunteers, now let be careful here, this isn’t about getting them all together and giving them an ear full because they are not pulling their weight. Remember that dealing with volunteers is very different from dealing with employees. If you upset volunteers it will have a far bigger shock wave effect then if you upset a paid member of staff and volunteers have no obligation to tell you what they really think.

So when it comes to volunteers it very much a self-assessment into what the organisation is doing in how they treat the volunteers, is change happening too quickly or are you expecting too much of them to do. I have written a whole blog on this which you can read by clicking here.

Finally looking at the source of funding, are you only getting funding from one source? Do they have any influence on what happens and how things are done? Could it be time to find a new source of primary funding?

There are a whole number of things that could be issue, but whatever the issue it needs to be dealt with at source, rather than beating round the bush.

Losing to the Digital Age?!

A survey conducted by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports showed that around 77% of adults in England have engaged with the Arts the 12 months prior to filling in the survey. A similar survey conducted by the same department focusing on film where 84% of adults engage with digital media (film and TV).

So what is happening within the arts? Why are people disengaging from the industry? Let’s just have a look a few more of the statics from the survey before unpacking some thoughts around this as many show a trend and changes within generations.

Young people (aged 16-24) are far more into the digital age then those who are 65 year plus. 78% of young people go to the movies and an unsurprising 92% enjoy watching TV. While only 69% of older people will go to the movies and 70% watch TV. Whilst when it comes to live arts, with the exemption of music the story is quite the reverse.

Live arts for this survey included everything from exhibitions to theatre and participating in some way or other in free time or voluntarily. There seemed to be a higher proportion of individuals who participate in creative arts rather than attending an arts presentation.

For the digital age there is a great thirst for getting on TV or in films, as this seems to be looked on as something that requires less skill then live arts. Being an extra in a film could mean just walking down a street, whilst being in a TV show could potentially win you thousands of pounds. The world of soap operas gives people the escape from the real world while being able to identify with the storylines of characters and dealing with social issues. Cinemas have performances at convenient times and repeat films over a month’s period or so and if you still miss it you can just pick up a DVD or download the movie online.

A recent article in The Stage said this down turn in the engagement of the arts is due to lack of interest, rising cost and accessibility for those with disabilities or long term illness. This maybe the case, but there has to be a reason for it surely? Yes digital technology is still new and exciting and is making head way on improving, but surely the live arts knew this would happen and would do the same to keep up with new competing market?

Well the first reason I am going to put is the lack of opportunities in the key years, school. As I keep on about the disappointment in the fact the arts have been dropped from EBacc in the UK. This mean that schools are justified to not put funding towards these subjects as it will not benefit them in the exam tables.

So with schools putting less funding toward the arts subject there are less trips out to theatres for children who may not otherwise get that opportunity and less ways for them to be creative during the key learning years. So if young people aren’t able to experience theatre and the arts then how else will interest be aroused?

Also there’s a lack of interest due to lack of encouragement to take the arts up as a career, I know this is about arts as a hobby, but if the group you are with or an individual you are associated with really wants to be in the arts but is not encouraged then that in itself will have a ripple effect. The reason there is a lack of encouragement in career towards the arts is because it is looked on a ‘not a proper’ job. So the negativity this message gives has a spiral effect for those engaging from a hobby side of it.

The lack of interest from disabled and those suffering from long term illnesses may be just that they are not aware of what theatres are doing to enhance the experience for them. How many people know that the Prince Edward theatre in London has autism friendly performances? Is it commonly known that theatres are now required to have things like induction loops for the hard of hearing or ensure they are wheelchair friendly? These facilities are just automatically assumed to known about as most were done through changes to the law.

Rising cost of entry fees is such a common theme and this is why funding has always been important to the arts as it was initiated to bring ticket costs down. The fact that the commercial side of the sector still has high prices making businesses and producer’s multi-millionaires is another story. But the reason they commercial theatre gets funded is the very reason ‘not for profit’ theatre requires grants and funding for organisations like Arts Council.

It won’t matter how much the program is adapted or much is invest in facilities interest won’t aroused until you get the people in past the threshold. When was the last time your theatre held some kind of open day? Where people can just come through the door, no tickets and have mooch round? See what facilities you have, see what programme and workshops you put on. It can even be an opportunity to allow them to suggest their own idea for programmes. If they have suggested it, it may just trigger their engagement.

But on the whole if theatre is under represented by funding and opportunity then how can it thrive and arouse engagement?

Is the arch still required?

What will theatres of the future look like? In a time of economic uncertainty and when there seems to be continual government budget cuts and the crowds are support funding cuts to the arts (The Stage 30 June 2016) does the future look bleak? Or is it a Doctor Who opportunity, time to regenerate our theatres and venues?

Some venues are becoming multipurpose with a wide variety uses and more productions are being accommodated with less restrictions. But there are still many venues that have not made this transition whether it is due to funding or tradition. Has the 1900 year tradition where the audience sits in rows looking at the proscenium arch become outdated or has it just become too restrictive for users and creative writers so therefore having its own repercussions on income as only a certain type of production can play to a restricted interest audience.

A new question arises, “Will funding cuts really ruin the arts financially or are the arts bringing it on themselves?” Am I saying we should do away with tradition of an arch? Of course not, but remind ourselves that modern day imagination sees beyond a picture frame style of theatre.

In 2010 the Guardian published an article about theatres being high contributors to the carbon footprints and two years later the Arts Council of England introduced an element into its criteria to encourage the arts to examine their impact on the environment, with the same organisation’s introduction of diversity into the criteria in 2010, it almost seems like ACE aren’t keen to give out funding or is it just they can see beyond tradition?

While there is enough acknowledgement that cuts in funding will continue in the currently climate, there are a lot of people in the industry who will just dig heals in demanding that funding improves, which won’t do any good as when the money has finally gone it won’t be able to just reappear.

Organisations like The New Art Exchange Gallery in Nottingham that heavily rely on funding as they only generates 18% of its income are going to be the worst hit. By contrast and an excellent example to the Arts Industry is the Leicester Curve, a building project that was overrun and well over budget, but now has become a money maker cutting it’s dependency on funding from 33% to 25% with a program that continually looks at ways to become financially better off (ITV News 20 July 2016).

No money has ever been guaranteed as any funding body could collapse or have its own funding cut at any time. Regional’s need to open up by looking out for new ways of being funded this may include going down the commercial line and have local business support, there is always opportunity to help each other in a partnership. But more than that looking at how they spend the money given through funding, what costs could be cut and I don’t mean making staff redundant. But the fact is funding criteria’s are going to get tougher, having to show budget and proving some sort of percentage to self-funding will always be on the cards.

Creating a new diversity of use to a space opens the door to new opportunities which have a high chance of leading to more income. Just imagine what would happen if a venue redeveloped its main auditoria that just has a proscenium arch format into a format where the incoming company had a choice of either an arch, being in the round or a bit of both and still have the same number in their audience. I know there are venues that currently have studios on the side, but these are often smaller then the main auditorium, and not every venue can afford or get the permission to build studios.

If a venue is being redeveloped why not make it far more environmentally friendly, while the cost of installing systems which have a lower impact on the environment can be high, this is usually accompanied by high long term savings. There are money making schemes, for example what if a venue had solar panels it would reduce spending on electricity during the season and during the dark period its feeding electricity back into the National Grid.

There are theatres that taking in conferences and weddings which is a wonderful way to utilise their spaces. But there are also theatres that are possibly too picky on what they accept, even when the production offers to do a profit share. So as a producer when you encounter this response you understand further why we have a public that supports funding cuts to the arts, it looks like the industry just wants free hand outs year on year.

Most theatres plan their seasons months in advance, if it was done on a week to week bases there would never be an audience. So why are we planning theatre funding that way? Do we need to stop thinking about a theatre for tomorrow and start thinking of the imagination of the new works of the future?

Theatre for the Rich

In November 2016 we heard about the Birmingham Rep having its funding cut from the local authority by more the 62%. Though with its international reputation and status the Rep could easily get that money back with just by a slight increase in ticket prices, but if they do that they risk pushing some people outside the threshold of being able to afford the enjoyment of theatre on that scale. Is it possible that over time theatre could become an exclusive club for the rich enough? Theatre regardless of the complaints about diversity has always aimed to be inclusive with its audiences and is one of the main reason theatres became subsidised. Right here in this moment one local authority is forcing a theatre into choosing their audience, is that fair?

With the end of the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Korea coming to a close this weekend it seems appropriate to mention that it is not just theatre that is affected by funding cuts. It seems that cuts in funding continued to be a running theme for 2017 as we heard about funding cuts for the next summer Olympics in 2020 with badminton seeing cuts of up to £2 million and cycling up to £4 million, with archery, fencing, weightlifting and wheelchair rugby all receiving no extra funding at all.

These sports are all expected to perform on the international stage to a high level with an expectation of bringing home more medals than in 2016, yet there will be no money available to coach individual to an international level. But these funding cuts can have their advantages, whereby less money means more pressure to perform well, while techniques may be developed the outcome will always be the same and most schools have a full sports programme where youngster can get involved and new talent is nurtured early on.

However when it comes to talent within theatre the story is very different in schools, drama has already be dropped through EBacc as a compulsory subject in schools so how can new talent be found and be nurtured if the subject is not funded on the curriculum properly with all additional funding for teacher training cut all together? Whatever funding is available to theatres probably won’t be available to nurture talent, and unlike sport the outcome will always be different. Every show needs a different same budget and different techniques need to be applied, with only the fundamentals of creativity remain the same.

Visualising the future of theatre and the arts with funding continuing to be cut, ticket prices rising to a point where only the rich can afford to see the performances. The number of rich people in our society is a percentage that wouldn’t fill all our theatres on a good night.

We must always remember that in a time of trouble, in the world in which we live and the damaged economic climate that we are experiencing, the arts and creative industry play a vital role in today’s communities. They don’t just serve as places of entertainment and education for audiences but more importantly they provide a much needed escape for a couple of hours from the real world, not just for the rich.

Funding, Diversity and New Works

There has been some discussion about proving the use of diversity in the arts to gain to funding from the Arts Council, as well as funding cuts from government, topped with how hard it is to fund new works.

Surely there’s a link between these issues that almost make it a catch 22 situation. Most of the work that is well known has been around for many years and their characters and stories are defined by a certain period in history. In rare cases like the works of Shakespeare directors can try new ways of modernising the perception in an aim to reach a much younger audience but the language and script will always be of Shakespeare’s day.

An example of a well-known work that was written to tackle issues of the day and quite comfortably cover diversity was the published in 1960 and was later adapted to the screen (1962) and stage (1990), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, it dealt so beautifully with racial injustice as well as those of rape and social inequality.

By contrast just 60 years earlier in what became one of the worlds most loved films was first published in 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s first adaptation in 1939 saw producers and directors have an almost all white cast, with the young lead character played by a white girl from Minnesota (Judy Garland). As the comedian Stephen K Amos once said, ‘There were black people in rural Kansas in 1939 they just weren’t allowed on the yellow brick road’

Recently Steven Berkoff said ‘White actors should be allowed to play Othello’. And he is probably right, but to me this suggestion seems a desperate far cry in helping the issues surrounding diversity since Othello was written as a way to show the inequality of black people in the 16th Century. Whilst a white actor could easily play Othello it would mean having the rest of the cast as coloured actors, but we did this would it still seem authentic? As the time and place in which it is set a white men had never experienced the corruption and unfair treatment of a black men.

But diversity is not about what story the play is telling, it’s about those performing as well. In the Stage (28 May 2015) Maria Friedman speaks of older actresses going into directing simply because there isn’t much in the way of roles for them to play as actors. Whilst directors today do their best to accommodate the sexual, gender and colour origination of actors when auditioning, they are still restricted by what is demanded of the script. In well-known productions they can’t just go changing the gender of a character or all of a sudden make them a wheelchair user, because it’s not what the audience expects. But why do they use the well-known material? Simply because it’s lower risk higher chance of gaining the funding needed to stage the production.

I am sure there are lots of writers that have addressed today’s issue, but unless you’re a well known writer then getting funding to get work commissioned is hard. You may be able to get the funding if you have a household name performing in your play, but would funding stretch to cover this cost? But does using well known household names really deliver a solution to the diversity problem as there are still hundreds of very talented working class actors who would be missing out on a opportunity to forward their career in the arts.

So for theatre to experience and show the full length of diversity and the problems that come with it in today’s society new material needs be written and funds made available for it to come to life.