Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Rick Fisher

The essential role of culture and particularly the theatre in the UK is all too often underestimated. The existence of cultural activities defines the status of any city and vitally brings people into the centre with a great deal of associated business activity that sustains and humanises the city centre every day. When the theatres and concert halls are dark the centre loses an important part of its soul. It is no accident that many cities around the world have looked to the creating of cultural centres when trying to regenerate and enliven the urban landscape.

Also it is often it is overlooked that these buildings provide substantial employment to not only resident employees but to large numbers of free lance workers and performers and support staff who tour these venues many weeks of the year. They too have a significant impact on the local economy.

The further implications of Britain’s success at creative industries, which rely on these buildings existing and programming a wide variety of performances is undervalued and contributes more to the economy than is often credited. The people working in this area are trained in the regions and go on to international success and bring not only kudos but deliver real returns to the national economy.

I am a full time theatrical lighting designer, and can testify to the international success of our discipline. Once again a British based creative team have swept up a lot of Tony Awards on Broadway. This year it was “War Horse” and last year it was “Red” while the year before that I was thrilled to be part of the “Billy Elliot” sweep.

We should reflect on what the consistency of these successes on Broadway means. It is no accident that the teams behind all these hits, and many of the other long runners such as Mamma Mia, Les Miserables, and Phantom to name a few, have all come up through the ranks of the “subsidised” and “regional” theatre in the UK. We all learned our crafts and bonded with our teams while working in fringe theatre and regional opera, dance and theatre companies before being lucky enough to share in the creation of a show that the world wants to see.

These successful exports should be viewed no differently than the manufactured goods that Britain used to export all over the world. They are hugely in demand as those products we used to make. They earn countless millions not only to the producers, bring tourism to the UK, but bring in a lot of tax revenue to the UK. It should be a well-known fact that the stage musical Phantom of the Opera alone has grossed more money worldwide than any single Hollywood film.

The UK is a world leader in the creation of staged entertainment, but this is actually under a variety of threats.

The harsh economic climate has meant that the small subsidies to new work, regional theatres and the smaller-scale companies, where all the creative teams behind the mega-hits learned their crafts, are drying up or at best allowing for less work with less risk and experimentation. With the difficult economy many theatres are threatened with closure or greatly reducing their output. In addition the short-sighted raising of tuition fees means that students will leave with huge debts to repay which they are unlikely to be able to support while starting out on the fringes of the industry as we all have. The increased financial need for higher education establishments to recruit non EU students (often at the expense of places for EU and British students who still manage to qualify for a lower fee) means that the beneficiaries of the Britain’s excellent tuition in theatre skills, who will be the future creators of the next generation of global theatrical franchises, will more likely be paying the tax on their earnings to any country apart for the UK.

Having spent the over whelming majority of the last 24 months lighting shows abroad, on every continent except Africa, I feel a small part of the great success story that is British theatre. We are a successful British export, and how often to you see those words in a sentence these days? Why are the arts penalised when we are so successful and return so much to the exchequer in tax?

So even as I wince as I make my next payment to the Inland Revenue on my worldwide earnings, I have to acknowledge that it is a fair return on the small Arts Council grants that sustained little fringe companies and theatres that gave me a chance as I was starting out. We have to make the government realise that the minuscule amounts supporting the Arts are not just about what shows are being produced currently but they are building the successful theatre industry for the future and the returns on those investments are huge. I hope that the funding bodies that created the successes of today are able to invest in the future generation of award winning British theatre and provide the venues for this work to be created and flourish.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011