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The Show Must Go On…but not in every region of the UK

James Newbery explains the regional theatre disparity trends that have emerged due to the pandemic and underfunding by the government.

2020 has been a bleak year for UK theatre-makers. I was devastated when a production of new-writing called Everyone’s Favourite Ingredient, in which I was to play supermarket checkout worker ghost number one (I’m being deadly serious) was cancelled. The student-led theatre group I was part of had been trying to secure funding for the Edinburgh Fringe for months. Therefore, I understand first-hand how miserable it can be when production after production is cancelled. Indeed, my own experience is incomparable to the hardships faced by those working in smaller regional organisations, whose financial structures cannot cope with the demands placed on them by the pandemic.

For example, in May, Nuffield Southampton Theatre fell into administration when Arts Council England withdrew their funding. Playwright James Graham tweeted at the time: “Southampton Nuffield Theatre is closing for good. 60 years of investment, training and serving its community. All profitable in normal times, just needed shortfall funding while closed and it didn’t come in time. So sorry to the 86 made redundant, and the locals who loved their theatre.”

A more recent example is the Minack Theatre in Cornwall, who announced that they are cutting jobs because their business has lost £500,000 due to COVID-19. Theatres like the Minack can only operate at 30% capacity with social-distancing measures in place. Despite the theatre having made a surplus in July, mass unemployment looms for the team, with no work being available over the Christmas months due to restrictions in place.

Yet it is due to cuts made by the British Government prior to the pandemic that regional theatres are particularly struggling. According to an Arts Index report published in June of this year, government funding for the arts declined by 35% between 2007 and 2020. Local government funding dropped by 43%, despite a 7% rise in ticket sales, according to an analysis of data supplied by 13 of England’s major regional producing theatres. Whilst COVID-19 certainly did not help Nuffield Southampton Theatre, as Graham points out, the theatre was perfectly solvent in years prior to the pandemic. It was even voted Regional Theatre of the Year in 2015. The reason they actually went into administration is due to Arts Council England (ACE) suddenly withdrawing their funding. The organisation had a bad year in 2018, as they moved into a new building above a Nando’s that was not yet adequately equipped to deal with the demands of the theatre company. But why did ACE allow the media to continue reporting that NST went bust due to the pandemic, when that wasn’t what happened in reality? Several regional theatres have struggled to cope in the pandemic, due to persistent negligence and underfunding for decades, both by regional funding bodies and the government themselves.

In addition, theatres in the North have been particularly hit; they have been in Tier 3 for several months now. Royal Exchange Manchester have made the most of online platforms. They describe their current production, All I Want for Christmas, as a digital advent journey “inspired by the voices of our regions.” The production features over fifty artists, ranging from members of the local community to the famous screenwriter Russell T Davies. Their Elders Company devised and performed A Funny Thing Happened in Isolation as a zoom play. The performance was an ingenious way of helping to combat loneliness particularly exacerbated by pandemic amongst the elderly population.

Rest assured, it is not all bad news for regional theatres. We should commend the efforts made by several regional theatres to keep producing content, as well as continuing their outreach programmes and keeping the spirit of British theatre alive. An organisation that I feel a particular personal attachment to is Chichester Festival Theatre. Having spent several years participating in their summer musical theatre programmes, I have first-hand knowledge of their investment particularly in young people through their Youth Theatre Company. I was blown away by their production of Crave by Sarah Kane, directed by Tinuke Craig in partnership with the Royal Court. The set design, featuring four actors on large treadmills, served as a powerful visual metaphor for the themes of the play, as well as making the most of the requirements of social distancing. The production opened just prior to the second national lockdown. The theatre responded to the new government measures with lightning speed, continuing to live-stream the production on 5th-7th November, even after lockdown began. They continue to have in-person performances, with their youth-theatre currently performing their Christmas production of Pinocchio. The theatre has also committed to continue to live-stream each production, expanding the reach of each production, as well as ensuring that those who do not feel comfortable sitting at a theatre in-person can still enjoy the productions that they are putting on.

Although on a lesser scale, London theatres have also suffered during the pandemic. The National Theatre had to close their production of Death of England: Delroy after its opening night. But like Chichester Festival Theatre, they have particularly invested in live streaming, as well as developing their National Theatre at Home service. Perhaps live-streaming will become more prevalent and the future of theatre, even after the pandemic is over.

Indeed, new Tier four restrictions means that London is no longer disproportionately unaffected. West End shows like Everyone’s Talking about Jamie and Six had just re-opened days before Johnson announced London’s movement into Tier three. I for one had tickets cancelled to see Nine Lessons and Carols at the Almeida and the Panto at the National. Whether theatres are allowed to continue in-person performances is now almost entirely down to luck. Chichester Festival Theatre have managed to escape Tier 4 restrictions by all of about 20 miles, as Chichester remains in Tier 2 despite the fact that neighbouring locations of Portsmouth and Havant are now entering Tier 4. What is clear is that these restrictions will carry into the beginning of 2021— and so methods of keeping regional organisations alive in the coming year really will differ region by region. It is, however, imperative to many actors and theatre lovers, regardless of the region, that the show must go on.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons Author: Eric van der Palen

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