In a period of mounting cuts to art budgets nationwide, local arts organisations are increasingly turning to grandiloquent claims in order to justify their continued existence. “It’s every theatre’s duty to try and engage as many people as possible,” argued Vicky Featherstone, director of the Royal Court, in the Guardian last week, while Liverpool’s newly revamped Everyman theatre claims to be “truly an Everyman for everyone.”
It’s easy to scoff when theatre directors start monologuing about the social mission of theatre, but there’s an increasing recognition of the role theatre has to play in education and social change. In Oxford alone, charities such as The Story Museum are attempting to bring theatre into the classroom, while social enterprises, such as The Old Fire Station, boasts a performance space which can seat well over a hundred people.
In Liverpool, as elsewhere, cultural organisations such as the Everyman are being increasingly viewed as central to the broader mission of urban and social regeneration. Schemes such as the ‘Young Everyman Playhouse’ are aimed at giving young people across the city opportunities to gain experience in theatre, with recent youth-led production The Grid one of the first products of this.
Liverpool, of course, is lucky to have a theatre such as the Everyman – a pillar of local cultural life which has just been refurbished to the tune of £28 million. Elsewhere the picture isn’t quite so rosy: last year Paul Milton, director of the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre warned that regional theatre is in ‘crisis’ due to a perfect storm of falling attendance and reduced funding.
Discussions of funding for arts in the regions is frequently framed as an issue of “London versus the rest,” but it’s a bit of a cop-out to simply argue that London swallows up arts budgets that the regions are in dire need of. The capital has the demographic heft and, more importantly, the creative talent to sustain a vibrant theatre scene, and as a result is able to stand on its own feet to a far greater degree.
It’s also a little disingenuous to claim that London monopolises theatre in the same way it does, for instance, banking. The RSC, after all, is based in Stratford, and cities such as Manchester and Liverpool have strong dramatic traditions – without which massive projects such as the redeveloped Everyman would not be possible.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine a venture as oddball or experimental as the National Theatre’s temporary ‘Shed’ springing up in, say, Sheffield. Now a whole year old and having earned a three-year reprieve from its once-imminent fate, The Shed – labelled London’s “hippest new cultural space” in charmingly geriatric fashion by The Independent – has found a way to attract the “younger, more diverse audiences” which still eludes multi-million pound developments such as the Everyman.
Innovative theatrical hubs such as The Shed tend to pop up at the unlikeliest of places – in this case as an unexpected by-product of the £80m NT Future building project – and don’t always simply follow the money. Why, then – a cynic might ask – should we spend close to £30 million on a shiny new gastropub frontage for a decades-old theatre? It’s true that the best things about the Everyman – the ‘Young Everyman Playhouse’ program , and its tradition of nurturing local talent – have more to do with mettle and community spirit than spiffy new premises. The fact that London’s most successful new venue is a temporary structure which has outstayed its welcome should give theatre directors around the country pause for thought.
On the other hand, great architecture can breathe life into a local theatre scene The Telegraph, of all outlets, has hailed the Manchester Royal Exchange for its ‘cathedral-like sense of light and space,‘ while the Everyman is in the running for the prestigious Stirling prize. Developments like the Everyman follow the same logic as Birmingham’s new, £450 million central library: splash a bit of cash, restore a city’s civic pride, and the little things will look after themselves.
There’s a lot of evidence that it’s working, too. Institutions such as the Everyman are more than just theatres – they’re tourist destinations and sources of civic pride. If regional theatres want to emulate the success of their London peers in navigating the double-bind of attracting audiences while carrying out projects of real worth to the community, they’ll need to take the plunge and carve out spaces that people will want to visit from around the country.
After all, theatres thrive within swarming drama ecosystems, and marquee projects such as the revamped Everyman can provide the canopy underneath which smaller projects can be realised. As the Everyman’s youth theatre director Matt Rutter says of the new building, “it’s our space first”: far from being an expensive vanity project, it’s a vital part of the Young Everyman Playhouse’s ‘open door’ policy, providing space for all young people with acting aspirations.
Still, as Rutter admits: “We’re very fortunate as a company at the inute, because we’ve just been given fundraising for a brand new theatre.” Most arts organisations around the country are struggling to keep their heads above water – and in those cases they might be a bit more skeptical about the virtues of splashing the cash on new theatres in a precious few metropolitan areas. Is regional theatre facing a “looming crisis,” then? I suppose that depends on where you live – but for now at least, the show must go on.