By Issy Flower
Generally, regional theatres are in decline. The way we now enjoy theatre has rendered them nearly obsolete in the eyes of many. However, I believe there’s a lot of value to be had from them, and that they should be supported as much as possible due to the sterling work they do to promote theatre amongst local communities.
Whilst the regional system of ‘Rep’ once provided a play a week to a hungry theatre-going public, allowing actors from Judi Dench to Timothy West to gain experience both behind the scenes and on stage, its usurpation by television and film mean that the regional theatre no longer attracts the same esteem or funds. Actors now do fringe theatre or touring shows to gain credits and training, with the knock-on effect that theatres cannot justify producing their own shows due to a deficit of actors and audiences. Increasingly, theatres rely on donations from famous ex-performers, outreach events such as author talks, and hosting touring companies rather than their own in-house productions. Although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and the fact that these events are being hosted at all is something to celebrate, the loss of the training and entertainment that the ‘Rep’ system provided is something to be mourned for.
So, how to help your local theatre? Firstly: see a show!
However, the new system isn’t a total loss. In fact, whilst audience numbers are very much decreased from the heyday of ‘Rep’, regional theatres are still able to survive due to their ingenuity in recruiting all manner of entertainment to fill their stages and to attract new audiences who may not have attended the theatre otherwise. Touring productions, especially from renowned companies such as KneeHigh, bring in new punters who wouldn’t always be attracted to a classical production of Wilde or Shaw, and who are above the age-range of the pantomime which is normally a theatre’s meal ticket for the year.
As a result, the theatre gains more funds to put into their own in-house productions when they can and gains an audience who can be tempted to come back for more. Similarly, the increasing flexibility of regional theatres has benefited those who might be traditionally unable to acquire such a large theatre. The Oxford Playhouse, for instance, offers its spaces to Oxford University, and our own Gala Theatre holds the annual DULOG and ‘Gala’ DST shows, giving students the opportunity to work within a more professional space alongside their studies. Therefore, not only does the training of the next theatrical generation continue, but a wider variety of shows are brought to the stage.
Theatres can always use some extra money for shows, upkeep and publicity, especially when they are being squeezed on all sides by the government and dwindling ticket sales.
Similarly, regional theatres are valuable in their outreach programmes. Many of them hold youth theatre programmes offering the opportunity to work with professional directors in a professional space, and so gaining valuable experiences and credits useful to a future acting career, as well as providing great social opportunities. School visits are also common as the theatres hold workshops related to current productions. The community value of these theatres is immense, and though the community may not be so responsive to the plays they produce as they might have been in the 1950s, their outreach activities make sure that the theatre remains relevant into the second decade of the 21st century.
So, how to help your local theatre? Firstly: see a show! Showing the theatre your support is the most important thing. Go and see a touring production—they are so varied that there will always be something to take your fancy, and so you give support to two small theatrical enterprises. Similarly, if you can, support the shows of their youth theatre, who need it the most. Otherwise, and I know we’re cash-strapped students, but if you can, donate to them. Theatres can always use some extra money for shows, upkeep and publicity, especially when they are being squeezed on all sides by the government and dwindling ticket sales.
Our regional theatres are a national asset: a place where actors can be trained, performances watched, and communities included all-in-one. Let’s not throw them away.
Image by Leila Romaya via Flickr