Theatre in the north: Time to stand up & be counted

Polly Checkland Harding
Puffball_credit_Stephen_King, royal exchange theatre

We spoke to five leading critics and theatre-makers about how Britain’s current theatre scene is both exciting – and frightening.

Funding cuts, emerging artists, closures, re-openings, safe bets and creative risks – the UK’s theatre scene is a shifting, unpredictable thing. Something like an iceberg, the impression you get really depends which way you look at it – and, ultimately, much of it is hidden below the waterline. Because beneath the anxiety currently gripping the media about the threats to theatre is the difficulty of trying to decipher where this change will lead. In the Royal Exchange’s recent production of Orlando, a great deal of the wit about eras long gone was possible exactly because they are now at a distance. To pick out patterns in our time is rather more difficult – but there are those who are willing to try. Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner is one. “The argument has to be more holistic; if you cut theatre, what do you lose in the process?” she says of the decisions behind funding cuts.

Sarah Frankcom, artistic director at the Royal Exchange, is another. “Theatre has undergone a transformation in the last ten years – all certainties have been exploded,” says Frankcom. “Ideas of what it is, who makes it and where it happens are changing.” Later this year, Frankcom will direct actress Maxine Peake as the title role in Hamlet. At Selfridges’ recent Festival of Imagination, Frankcom and Peake spoke about the creative risks involved in such a project – and in their previous collaboration, the Masque of Anarchy. The Masque was a sell-out success for MIF, which came as a shock to Frankcom. “Max and I felt like it was a niche event. We were overwhelmed by the number of people who came,” she said. It appears that for major venues and events, there’s a real appetite for challenging theatre, but how easy is it to gamble on an inventive production if you’re a start-up company?

Theatre has undergone a transformation in the last ten years. All certainties have been exploded

Frankcom admits that whilst the scene for emerging artists “feels like a very rich ecology at the moment” – citing both the Bruntwood Prize for new writing and the annual 24:7 Festival – it is also a “fragile ecosystem; it won’t take much for it to wither. The Arts Council are now funding work with small companies, smaller projects. This means that work can happen, but the infrastructure of companies throughout the year isn’t being supported. Companies are only being paid when they’re actually making.” Lyn Gardner is similarly wary. While she sees “a generation of artists determined to make theatre, and doing so in ways that aren’t so reliant on funding” she also warns that, “the funding situation is poor and the outlook is worse. There’s a combined threat – lottery sales are down, government funding to the Arts Council is down.”

Experimental theatre company Quarantine has a long history of making work in Manchester; the three founding members first met 23 years ago. When we spoke to co-director Richard Gregory, he too expressed his concerns. “There’s been a cultural shift in the last five years, a proliferation of smaller scale, solo work. Possibly because people are daunted by making larger things,” he says, citing Contact theatre’s Flying Solo Festival as an example of solo performances of a high quality. By way of contrast, Summer Autumn, Winter Spring, a project that Quarantine is currently curating for new, performance-focused arts space, HOME, is set to involve anything from a single to fifty performers on stage at any one time.

The opening of HOME in 2015 points towards the idea that, gloomy economic outlook aside, not all is lost for regional theatre. “In the territory that Quarantine is involved in, it’s not the case that London is the hub, especially not in the international perception,” confirms Gregory. Whether niche or mainstream – plays such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for example, are choosing to begin national tours in Manchester – there’s a sense that the north is rich territory for both producers and audiences.

It’s not the case that London is the hub, especially not in the international perception

This is just one of the reasons why the formerly London-based theatre company Kill the Beast has announced its move to Manchester. Its first production, The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, was created with The Lowry, but with the team based in the capital. The process happened “in the back of crap pubs and in living rooms with the chairs pushed back,” says the company’s co-director, Tash Hodgson. “Living in London was like taking on a sprawling, magical beast – but you don’t want to kill yourself doing it,” she continues. “Whereas Manchester feels like a real community, there’s the sense that the city is on your side.”

Hodgson’s view of Manchester may have something to do with scale – it’s big enough to host a vibrant scene without reaching the anonymity of London – but it’s not solely this that makes a move north appealing. The community Hodgson alludes to extends beyond the social and into a new level of collaboration between companies, directors, producers and performers. “Traditionally, theatre ploughed its own furrow,” says the Royal Exchange’s Sarah Frankcom. “But now there’s a cross-fertilisation between artists and better relationships between theatres. Quite simply, we meet and talk more.” The Exchange’s forthcoming production, Puffball – the culmination of a year-long project with young people that fuses circus with storytelling – is testament to this new approach. It has been developed via a partnership between the Roundhouse (London), Contact (Manchester) and Cast (Doncaster), and it demonstrates the power of collaborations to bring about the sorts of long-term projects that, until now, seemed impossible.

It might also help to explain why new theatres and productions are appearing in the North’s larger cities: these are places that have achieved a kind of theatrical critical mass. “The more of something there is, the better it is for that thing,” explains Gemma Bodinetz, the Everyman and Playhouse’s artistic director. “As my grandma used to say, ‘go to a street of cobblers to buy shoes’.” Bodinetz has a point, particularly in a city like Liverpool whose theatre scene has been bolstered by the opening of new venues along with the rebuild of the Everyman.

Yet while critical mass brings with it more choice for audiences, it also delivers something else: money. In 2012, a giant, marionette girl and her little dog walked the streets of Liverpool in a piece of promenade theatre that spanned three days, 23 miles and was seen by an estimated 800,000 people. Sea Odyssey was a huge investment (it cost £1.5m to stage), but Bodinetz remembers it as a “seminal moment” with a real effect on “those people who were circumspect about culture, about spending money on the arts.” Liverpool is preparing to host theatre company Giant Spectacular again, with Memories of August 1914 planned for later in the year. The reason? Not only was this monumental event awe-inspiring – “you can’t write a paragraph about it, because of how it makes you feel”, says Bodinetz – it also underlines the argument for investing in regional theatre. Because for every pound spent in staging Sea Odyssey, over three came back. In all, around £46m was generated for the local economy. It’s an impressive conversion rate, though the value of the arts isn’t solely economic. There are endless reports and statistics that prove the softer benefits of culture; one such report reveals, for example, that those children who engage in the arts at secondary school are 20% more likely to vote when they reach adulthood.

Lyn Gardner’s question, then – if you cut theatre, what do you lose in the process – seems more pertinent than ever. Theatre is ultimately about its audience – the people who buy tickets, catch the bus to a promenade piece, the kids in schools seeing the sorts of stuff they’d never otherwise experience. This audience is at the heart of regional theatre’s survival. The time has come for us all to look at the part we play in a changing theatrical world – to attend, take part in and occasionally stand up for theatre old and new.

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