The dangers of leaving regional and fringe theatres in the dark

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Note: this article was written and published prior to the government’s announcement of a £1.57 billion bailout for the arts sector.

Oliver Dowden has failed. He has failed the theatre industry. He has failed the cultural sector he represents. And, in doing so, he has failed his country.

Three months ago, Mr Dowden was tasked with securing relief for a sector that is physically unable to function under his own government’s restrictions. The fruits of his labour over the past three months, which he claims to have spent “every day” working on, have so far resulted in a sum total of zero pounds being spent on bailing out the arts. Zero. Zilch. Diddly squat.

To put this into perspective, the British Government has spent £900,000 more on painting a Union Jack onto Boris Johnson’s private jet than it has on bailing out the entire arts sector. 

All over the country, our regional theatres are under threat like never before

The argument for rescuing the arts is well-trod ground by this point: as well as providing an invaluable cultural and educational resource, the cultural sector is estimated to contribute £8.5 billion annually to the UK economy.

Yet this sector is being left to die. All over the country, our regional theatres are under threat like never before, and it is their loss that will be felt the most keenly. These venues outside of London form an essential part of Britain’s cultural landscape, not only providing top-class theatre for people living outside the capital (they do exist, and there are a lot of them), but also creating a shared community within their local areas.

Each city only has a handful of these regional theatres, and when they’re gone, they’re gone for good. Already we have seen the closure of Nuffield Southampton Theatres, and unless emergency funding is acquired it is likely that more regional venues will follow. The Royal Exchange has recently announced it may have to make up to 65% of its staff redundant in order to avoid collapse, while the Theatre Royal Plymouth is in talks to lay off 100 of its staff. These essential venues are on the brink of collapse, and their demise will be sorely felt.

Another key area under threat is London’s fringe theatres, who have ultimately been hit the hardest by enforced closure. Many of these theatres have fewer than 100 seats, and so keep to the tightest of budgets even when business is good. They will be the last theatres who are able to reopen, and yet paradoxically have the smallest amount of savings to tide them over until then.

Yet these smaller venues are arguably the most essential, as they form the backbone of the country’s new writing scene, providing homes for countless new plays and playwrights. Venues like Theatre503, the Bush, and the Old Red Lion (where Durham’s own ‘Number Theory’ was set to play) may not be as well-known as the Royal Court, but have played just as big a part in providing opportunities for the nation’s emerging and established playwrights, kickstarting their careers.

The same government who has given a £48 million grant to Wetherspoons cannot afford a single penny for one of Britain’s most lauded industries

The amount theatres are asking for is not much – they literally just need the bare minimum to keep their staff employed until it is safe to reopen. When the same government who has given a £48 million grant to Wetherspoons cannot afford a single penny for one of Britain’s most lauded industries, it projects a worrying indication of where their priorities lie.

Because at the end of the day, theatre is at its core an exercise in empathy. An audience watching a play are encouraged to see the world through another pair of eyes, and are made to identify with the experiences and emotions of someone other than themselves. The spirit of empathy and collaboration has little place in the ‘all for one’ rhetoric of austerity, so is it any wonder that the current government are so willing to let theatre die a quiet death, now that they have such a prime opportunity to do so?

I sincerely hope that I am mistaken in assuming this to be the government’s motivation. It may well be that Oliver Dowden has spent every day of the past three months banging on Rishi Sunak’s door, demanding that the arts be saved. But the government’s silence has been all too deafening.

Hopefully, by the time this is published, a solution will have been found, but this will not happen passively. So I urge you all, if you want the arts to survive: write to your MP, tag Oliver Dowden on Twitter, spread the word about how essential these venues are and how they need to be saved. If we don’t, they will not still be there when we come back.

Image: Paul Wylde on Flickr

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