Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Fifth Report

1  Introduction

The theatre

1. British theatre is vibrant, diverse and renowned across the world. It falls into two inter-linked spheres: the commercial sector—stereotypically populated by lavish musical spectacles—and the subsidised sector, more usually associated with challenging interpretations of existing work and innovative and risky new writing. According to Arts Council England, 79% of people in England believe that the arts should get public funding.[1] As the DCMS memorandum stated: "theatre and drama play an important role in the cultural life of the UK."[2] Other recent trends are encouraging. Despite adverse media expectations, 2004 was the second best year on record for theatre attendance in London (around 12 million people) and recently there appeared to have been a stable picture across the UK with around 16 million seats filled per year.[3]

2. The theatre is invariably cited as one of the key attractions that the country has to offer to overseas visitors alongside national museums and galleries; and this is especially true of visitors to London, from both abroad and within the UK. Theatrical productions originating in this country tour the world and at times dominate Broadway. The most commercially successful entertainment of the 20th century was not a Hollywood blockbuster movie but a British stage musical, Phantom of the Opera.[4]

3. In addition to commercial success, British theatre also has an enviable record in terms of: the creativity and technical skills of its people on, off and behind the stage; critical acclaim and intellectual challenge; and taking risks in pushing the boundaries of national discourse. These elements are more likely to be evident, or originate, within the subsidised sector but, as we discuss below, there appears to be a symbiotic relationship between the subsidised and commercial sectors that can work to mutual advantage.

4. This inquiry was prompted by the dismay caused by the public expenditure settlement announced in late 2004 for the period 2005/06 to 2007/08. The allocation of resources to Arts Council England—the independent body responsible for funding theatre amongst other art forms—was announced as frozen for this period. This freeze was estimated to give rise to a real terms cut for the arts of nearly £34 million over the settlement period.

Terms of reference

5. The Committee issued a call for evidence setting out a number of issues as guidance for submissions in December 2004 (set out below). We received a large number of submissions from arts organisations, campaigns, theatres and a few individuals. There was a range of views on some of the issues but a surprising consensus on others. The issues identified and summary of responses was as follows.

a)  The current, and likely future, pattern of public subsidy for the theatre including both revenue support and capital expenditure.

i.  There was a consensus that the funding uplift of 2002, following the Theatre Review debate and production of a National Policy, had revived British theatre with special emphasis on a regional renaissance. Equally, however, there was unanimity that the freezing of Arts Council funding for the next spending period threatened all that had been achieved. In addition, there was the concern that where the Government led, other sources of funding would follow.[5]

ii.  The achievements of National Lottery capital funding were welcomed but there was concern that an equivalent investment needed to be sustained into work to be undertaken in the buildings that had been created or re-created. The disparity between capital awards for museums and galleries and those for theatre was highlighted.[6]

b)  The performance of the Arts Council England in developing strategies and priorities and disbursing funds accordingly.

i.  The Arts Council (ACE) received praise for its reorganisation, the National Policy for Theatre and the streamlining of funding systems.[7]

ii.  However, a debate emerged. On one side were those who saw ACE's distribution of funding as stagnant, unrelated to arts policy outcomes and general performance and slanted towards existing clients and 'buildings'.[8] On the other were those who regarded the current pattern as appropriate given the existing investment in regularly funded organisations and the valuable critical mass of activities, including out-reach, and in-reach, taking place at a majority of subsidised theatres.[9]

c)  Support for maintenance and development

Theatre buildings

i.  There was support for the establishment of a Lottery funding stream explicitly for regular maintenance for which no theatre seemed able to generate reserves. This appeared now to be regarded as a higher priority than grand re-development schemes.[10]

New writing

ii.  New writing was consistently emphasised as extremely important for the health of the art form and a number of theatres demonstrated their support for it (with the Royal Court as the obvious exemplar).[11] The writers' representatives suggested that some further practical measures were needed.[12] Most witnesses stressed that new work, and its attendant risks, required adequate subsidy for the sector.

iii.  There was strong evidence of markedly weaker support systems for new musical writing, and productions of new musicals, than for drama.[13]

New performing talent

iv.  Much stress was laid on the importance of reaching out to young people to develop new audiences as well as to inspire a new generation from whose ranks new talent would emerge (on and behind the stage).[14] There was criticism of the perceived divide between professional and amateur theatre (despite the origins of many professionals in the latter).[15]

v.  The need for more effort and initiatives to tackle the lack of diversity in the theatre workforce—as well as in new writing and in audiences—was also raised. There was a need to encourage the provision of appropriate opportunities and role models, as well as candidates for those opportunities, from amongst ethnic minorities.[16] We note the Arts Council's target that, by 2007/08, 14% of regularly funded organisations would be led by black and minority ethnic artists or key to the infrastructure that supported their work.[17]

vi.  Concern was expressed about the lack of coordination of the training and development opportunities in drama and theatre and the relatively low incidence of accreditation by the National Council for Drama Training amongst the many related higher education courses offered around the country.[18] More indirectly, the scarcity of large cast productions, low pay and poor advice were also identified as a significant barrier to developing careers in theatre.

d)  The significance of the theatre as a genre (1) within the cultural life of the UK; (2) in the regions specifically, and (3) within the UK economy, directly and indirectly.

i.  There was virtual unanimity over the centrality of theatre within British culture; the blooming of regional theatre since 2002; and the enormous contribution that theatre made to the economy at local, regional and national levels. However, it was clear that the formalisation of such findings, and their systematic use to forge partnerships with local and regional government, had yet to be undertaken successfully.[19]

e)  The effectiveness of public subsidy for theatre and the relationship between the subsidised sector and the commercial sector—especially London's West End.

i.  It was clear from the emerging impacts of the funding uplift for theatre in 2002 that public subsidy for theatre was effective.[20] The debate, referred to above, between funding 'people' and funding 'buildings' was, however, relevant here too.

ii.  The relationship between commercial and subsidised theatre, in terms of transfers of productions, was generally described as one of mutual benefit in some cases[21] but the balance of power in negotiations was felt to be with commercial producers in most instances.[22] A different type of mutually beneficial relationship was said to the management of theatres, on behalf of local authorities, by the larger commercial companies who could bring expertise and economies of scale to bear.[23]

f)  Progress with significant (re-)development projects.

i.  Submissions dealt with plans and progress of a number of substantial re-development projects including at the Royal Shakespeare Company's base in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Crucible in Sheffield and the Belgrade in Coventry.

ii.  Proposals for a substantial public investment, over the next 15 years, in the commercially-operated theatres of London's West End, and related arguments, were also set out.

Course of inquiry

6. At Westminster we took oral evidence during public hearings from representatives of:

a)  The Writers Guild of Great Britain; The Theatres Trust; and the Central Council for Amateur Theatre (CCAT), the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) and the Little Theatres Guild (LTG).

b)  The National Theatre; the Society of London Theatre (SoLT) and the Theatrical Management Association (TMA); and the Independent Theatre Council (ITC).

c)  The Almeida and Donmar Warehouse theatres; the London Old Vic and the Royal Court theatres; and the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), Clear Channel Entertainment, Delfont Mackintosh Theatres Ltd, and Really Useful Theatres.

d)  Equity, BECTU and the Musicians Union; the National Campaign for the Arts; the Arts Council England (ACE) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF); and Rt Hon Estelle Morris MP, the Minister for the Arts, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

7. We also held a hearing—to which representatives of a selection of regional and local theatres and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) were invited—at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and took evidence from: the Rep itself, Birmingham City Council and the Manchester Royal Exchange; the Crucible and West Yorkshire Playhouse; Derby Playhouse, Lichfield Garrick, Lichfield District Council and the Belgrade, Coventry; and the RSC.[24]

8. In addition to the formal hearing at the Rep, this visit to the West Midlands included informal meetings and discussions at the Lichfield Garrick, at the Glasshouse College site in Stourbridge and at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.

9. The Lichfield Garrick is a rare example of a new theatre developed on the back of the firm commitment of the district council to invest in, and fund, a sizeable theatre as the cultural hub of the local community. Discussion there centred around funding issues, especially for new and evolving arts organisations and initiatives, and the ambitions of the Garrick to itself move from receiving to production with a particular focus on creating a platform for local voices and providing opportunities for the development of local expertise (behind and above the stage).

10. At the Glasshouse College in Stourbridge—the second site of the developing Ruskin Mill Educational Trust—we were privileged to see and discuss an enormously impressive educational initiative, for young people with learning disabilities or other challenges to overcome, based around a holistic set of creative and cultural activities, including drama, founded upon the revitalisation of traditional skills of the locale; in particular glass-making. We also heard plans for a major arts and drama festival there in August 2006.[25]

11. In Stratford we saw and discussed the RSC's final blueprint for the re-development of its main house, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. We also had the opportunity of meeting an RSC ensemble who were in the midst of a national and international tour—including stops from Forres to Truro to Ebbw Vale and on to North Carolina in the USA—with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Julius Caesar. This tour was using a mobile self-contained studio theatre which could be erected within any large space, such as a leisure centre main hall, inside a day. This initiative, as one of the cast remarked to us, was genuinely taking the theatre to the people.

12. Previous work by this Committee in this area includes an examination of the reform of the Arts Council and initial proposals for re-developing the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.[26] We also took evidence on musical theatre—inspired by the plight of the Bridewell Theatre in the City of London—in 2003. The proceedings of that hearing on 14 October 2003, and relevant material accepted as formal memoranda, are published alongside this Report.[27] This is the first inquiry into theatre per se by this Committee or any of its predecessors.

13. We are extremely grateful to all our witnesses, and hosts, for their time and effort in contributing so effectively to our inquiries.[28]

1   Q 498 Back

2   Ev 201 Back

3   More than attend Premiership football games. Ev 158  Back

4   Act Now! Modernising London's West End Theatres, The Theatres Trust, 2003, p18 Back

5   QQ 14 and 468, Ev 46, 156, 176-7.  Back

6   Ev 11-12, Arts Council England, 17 March 2005 Back

7   Ev 107, 110 and 156 Back

8   Ev 55 and Q 388 Back

9   QQ 317-319 and 398 Back

10   Ev 142 Back

11   Ev 76, 142, 169 and 179 Back

12   Ev 2-3 Back

13   Ev 93-97 and see Volume III, passim Back

14   Q 190 (Ms Jones) Back

15   Ev 19-25 Back

16   Ev 160 and 166, and Q 465  Back

17   Arts Council England, 17 March 2005 Back

18   Ev 170 Back

19   Ev 109, QQ 320 (Mr Ormston), 323-4, 352 and 401  Back

20   Ev 188-9 Back

21   Ev 82, 87-91 Back

22   Ev 56 Back

23   Q 290 Back

24   A full dramatis personae for the inquiry is set out at the back of this Report. Back

25   In August 2004, the Stourbridge Glasshouse College hosted the inaugural International Festival of Glass (incorporating the British Glass Biennale). Back

26   See Third Report, 2001-02, Arts Development, HC 489. Back

27   This material is set out in Volume III Back

28   The relevant evidence gathered during this inquiry is published in Volume II Back

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Prepared 23 March 2005