Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

'We don't have to whinge any more'

t's boom time for regional theatre. Alfred Hickling profiles the playhouses that are leading the way

Take a quick scan at what's going on in theatres around the country this week: something unusual is happening. Liverpool Playhouse is flexing its theatrical muscle with August Wilson's massive blues bonanza, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Manchester Royal Exchange has re-opened its studio and is presenting Dog Boy, a new play for children. Sheffield Crucible embarks on a major Caryl Churchill retrospective and Harold Pinter directs Simon Gray's latest play in Birmingham. Even theatres such as Derby Playhouse have bucked the trend of endless Educating Ritas - this week Derby audiences are treated to their first Shakespeare for nearly a decade.

Where has all this new-found confidence come from? The short answer would be the extra 25m pumped into regional theatre as a result of the Arts Council Theatre Review. Ask any artistic director in the country if this re-investment has made a difference, and the resounding answer is yes. "It's wonderful," says Ian Brown, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. "We don't have to whinge any more." But the Theatre Review is about more than just money. In some cases the increases were almost immediately swallowed up meeting the (deservedly) higher rates demanded by the actors' and technicians' unions. More important than the cash is the vote of confidence that comes with it. The review marks a new incentive to succeed. It's a simple equation - ambitious programming attracts major artists who bring in bigger audiences. Look at Sheffield Crucible's Edward II: Michael Grandage programmed it, Joseph Fiennes wanted to be in it, and every seat was sold.

Yet it is personalities, not hand-outs, that make building-based companies succeed. Twenty years ago, Derby Playhouse, Sheffield Crucible and Nottingham Playhouse were as distinctive as the maverick visionaries who led them: Annie Castledine, Clare Venables and Richard Eyre. The 1980s and 1990s saw a steady erosion of bold, artistic leadership as the management culture supplanted artists with executives. Cast sizes shrank at the same rate that marketing departments expanded. Now the Theatre Review has made the regions an attractive place to work again: buildings are back in the hands of the artists. Jonathan Church at Birmingham, Karen Louise Hebden in Derby, David Farr and Simon Reade at Bristol represent a new generation of artistic directors who grew up in the Thatcher years, who understand the importance of accountability, have experience of fundraising, and are generally savvy about the importance of surviving in a mixed economy.

Their theatres generate as much money as they absorb. A recent economic impact study by the Arts Council revealed that a theatre the size of Derby Playhouse is worth 3.9m to the local economy, while a flagship such as the Sheffield Crucible generates an astonishing 22m. The question is no longer whether we need regional theatres, it's how could we survive without them?

Birmingham Rep

Before Unloved and seemingly unfillable concrete bunker outshone by the smarter Symphony Hall next door.
Who came in Jonathan Church, as artistic director, in 2001.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 1,641,188, up 4.7%.
Box office increase Since 2001, an increase of 97% in the main house and 82% in the studio.
What's the big idea? To reverse the previous trend of spreading fewer productions over longer runs. "We've doubled the amount of work on both our stages," says Church. "The Theatre Review marked a real sea-change in regional theatre attitudes. At no point in the Rep's history would it have been possible to even contemplate staging something as ambitious as our revival of the David Hare trilogy."
Key productions "The David Hare trilogy was a great event," wrote Michael Billington in the Guardian. "Here was a huge team of actors at work on a massive project made possible only by enhanced government funding. By Saturday's final performance, I also witnessed something I had never before seen at Birmingham Rep: a packed house."
What the critics say "Birmingham Rep has been revitalised by its young artistic director Jonathan Church ... a theatre at the very top of it's game" - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph.

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Bristol Old Vic

Before Proud Georgian theatre in genteel decline. Rescued from bankruptcy by an Arts Council stabilisation package in 2002.
Who came in Joint artistic directors Simon Reade and David Farr in 2003.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 1,042,190, up 5.1%.
Box office increase A 23% increase in new attenders in Farr and Reade's first term.
What's the big idea? "The 1990s ethos of parachuting in managers to run theatres has failed," says Simon Reade. "Theatres are back in the hands of artists again. Five years ago, we would never have dreamed of applying to run a theatre like the Bristol Old Vic, but the Theatre Review has given artists confidence that regional theatre is the place to be. I'd like to see the term 'regional theatre' abolished, however. We ought to work on the European model of national state theatres. We're the National State Theatre of Bristol."
Key productions David Farr's adaptation of Paradise Lost was the surprise hit of the past season.
What the critics say "Under the Farr/Reade partnership, the Vic is being reborn" - Sunday Times. "Together, Farr and Reade have rescued a theatre that was languishing in the bottom division of critical affection and brought it into the premier league" - Daily Telegraph.

Chichester Festival Theatre

Before Radical ensemble theatre founded by Laurence Olivier, lapsed into genteel torpor.
Who came in Martin Duncan, Ruth Mackenzie and Steven Pimlott took over as joint artistic directors in 2003: "We came as three for the price of two," says Mackenzie.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 650,000, up 84.6%.
Box office increase Up 58% overall. The first season under the new directorate was Chichester's best for five years.
What's the big idea? To restore Olivier's original ensemble vision and re-awaken the "festive" aspect of the enterprise with themed seasons. Last year Venice came to the streets and stages of Chichester, this year it's Athens. Ruth Mackenzie says: "When we were asked to take over the theatre, we stated that we needed an 84% increase in revenue funding from the Arts Council, plus clearance of the deficit. Remarkably, we got it. We now have the largest permanent ensemble of actors and musicians outside the RSC, and are on the way to establishing a major European festival to rank alongside Edinburgh, Aix and Vienna."
Key productions Steven Pimlott's production of The Seagull went head-to-head with Peter Stein's at the Edinburgh Festival. Most critics agreed that Chichester won: "A bracing antidote to autopilot Chekhov" - Michael Billington, the Guardian. "Indignation soon yields to admiration ... it is good to be challenged by such a fresh, irreverent approach" - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph.

Derby Playhouse

Three years ago Regional behemoth employing 60 backstage and administrative staff. And two actors.
Who came in Stephen Edwards (creative producer) and Karen Louise Hebden (artistic director/chief executive) in July 2002.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 661,070, up 5.1%.
Box office increase Season ticket sales up from 3,156 to 20,888; overall attendances up 40%. Preliminary findings of the Arts Council economic impact study showed that Derby Playhouse is worth 3.9m to the local economy.
What's the big idea? To start employing actors again. Karen Louise Hebden says: "When I joined the theatre, our average cast size was three. We've increased this to 12-13, and in June we are presenting Midsummer Night's Dream, our first Shakespeare for nine years." The funding increase of the Theatre Review is not a financial cure-all, however. Derby's modest windfall of 20,000 was swallowed up by meeting increased Equity and BECTU (technicians' union) demands. Hebden's expansionism is primarily the result of massive fundraising and development.
Key productions Rep staples The Entertainer and Private Lives, given a new spin by radical opera director David Freeman.
What the critics say "A defining production" - Michael Billington on The Entertainer, for the Guardian. "Derby Playhouse's Private Lives makes you hear the play anew" - Michael Coveney, Daily Mail.

Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman Theatre

Before Two illustrious but increasingly shabby venues a mile apart - one the cradle of Willy Russell, Ken Campbell and Alan Bleasdale, the other the oldest professional repertory company in the country. One intermittently operative, the other closed.
Who came in Gemma Bodinetz as artistic director and Deborah Aydon as executive director in September 2003.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 1,350,000, up 5.1%.
Box office increase 33% rise in ticket sales over the past season.
What's the big idea? To put both theatres at the forefront of Liverpool's transformation into the European Capital of Culture 2008. Bodinetz says: "Liverpool has been theatrically underachieving for so long that audiences have lost the habit. Our job is to win them back, and the Theatre Review has been the cash and confidence-boost which enables us to do it."
Key productions An acclaimed revival of Calderon's Mayor of Zalamea; the UK premiere of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman.
What the critics say "Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman Theatres are currently enjoying a fresh lease of life" - Independent on Sunday. "Gemma Bodinetz has gone some considerable way towards putting the city back on the theatrical map" - Daily Telegraph.

Newcastle Playhouse

Before Director Alan Lyddiard used an Arts For All Lottery grant to found a permanent ensemble of actors, technicians and musicians. The funding lasted two years. Lyddiard's vision ran for 10.
Who came in Gregory Nash joined Lyddiard as producer in 2004.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 1,124,595 up 4.9%
Box office increase Stabilised in recent years. More than 120,000 people saw Animal Farm on tour.
What's the big idea? To develop the Northern Stage Ensemble to its full potential and transform the Newcastle Playhouse into a European Centre for the Arts. 8m has been secured for redevelopment, and the theatre closed for 18 months of building work. It will reopen in June 2005 with a major festival of European theatre, including collaborations with Calixto Bieito, Lev Dodin, Silviu Purcarete and Gabor Tompa. Lyddiard says: "Five years ago, we were a nuisance. Now we're a model."
Key productions A groundbreaking trilogy of multimedia Orwell adaptations, which have toured extensively: Animal Farm, 1984 and, most recently, Homage to Catalonia, in a co-production with Theatre Romea, Barcelona and West Yorkshire Playhouse. Michael Coveney in the Daily Mail called it "one of the best evenings of political theatre in living memory".
What the critics say "Northern Stage Ensemble is not so much a rep as a total theatre machine" - the Guardian.

Sheffield Crucible

Before The void left by visionary artistic director Clare Venables was largely filled by snooker.
Who came in Michael Grandage (associate director) Angela Galvin (chief executive).
Revenue grant in 2003/4 1,268,700, up 4.7%.
Box office increase Up 75% since 1997. The Arts Council's economic impact survey calculates the theatre to be worth 22m to the regional economy.
What's the big idea? Grandage's burgeoning reputation has made the Crucible a magnet for major stars: Joseph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh and Diana Rigg have appeared recently and the Sheffield Theatres production of Suddenly Last Summer is running at the Albery in London. Speaking of the landmark production of Edward II, Galvin says: "An Elizabethan play about a medieval king and his gay lover was not obviously calculated for box office appeal. But the ambition of the project attracted Fiennes, who in turn attracted huge audiences. The Theatre Review is an inducement to take this sort of risk: it's a much more vibrant and confident sector now."
Key productions Edward II, Suddenly Last Summer, a highly acclaimed retrospective season of the plays of Peter Gill.
What the critics say "Regional theatre that could teach the metropolis a thing or two" - the Independent. "The first time I have seen an audience in regional theatre give a standing ovation to a classical play" - Sunday Times on Edward II.

West Yorkshire Playhouse

Before The 10-year leadership of Jude Kelly forged a new identity for regional theatre as an open-all-hours cultural supermarket and community centre.
Who came in Associate director Ian Brown succeeded Kelly as artistic director and chief executive in 2002.
Revenue grant in 2003/4 1,345,900, up 5.1%.
Box office increase The theatre reports the box office has been maintained rather than risen. Earned income accounts for two-thirds of the budget.
What's the big idea? To maintain the Playhouse's standing as a flagship cultural centre. Brown has collaborated with Kneehigh Theatre, Improbable, Theatre Romea, Barcelona, Northern Stage and Birmingham Rep. "Lottery money was a bit of a false dawn for regional theatre," says Brown. "It forced us to go chasing after a plethora of subsidiary projects at the expense of our core repertoire. The great benefit of the Theatre Review is that the administration has been cut right down. Not only is the money there, it's accessible."
Key productions Hamlet, starring Christopher Eccleston: "One of the best for some time" - John Gross, Sunday Times. Improbable's Shockheaded Peter was developed at the Playhouse.
What the critics say "Ian Brown has brought something fresh to the Playhouse: you only need look at the productions he has helmed ... to see that Brown believes in the magic of theatre" - Michael Coveney, Daily Mail.


original source: The Guardian
02 June 2004


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