Theatre in Wales

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Trust the Tale not the Teller/ Empty Theatres- the Audience's Fault

Theatre: the Talk in England

Comment , Theatre in 2015 , December 23, 2015
Theatre: the Talk in England by Comment Numbers in theatre are hard to find. Funders get to know them but otherwise the makers of theatre are as tight-lipped as any other corporate sector. The artist who has made her finances entirely transparent is a rare exception. The odd number does sometimes get into the press. A Sunday newspaper article in mid-2015 reported that a regional theatre in a northern town of three hundred thousand with a potentially big catchment area was empty for one hundred and forty-two nights over one six month period. Councils are responding to stringency in two main ways, one of which is to reduce the estate. Live performance is not just costly in its mounting. The venues of an earlier age, many of them buildings of architectural glory, carry a huge burden of significant and under-utilised overhead.

There is a result. Programming fees, says a voice in the Guardian of 27th May, have remained stagnant for twenty years. “Often, the percentage split doesn’t cover the get-ins and get-outs, let alone wages.” This was not an unknown company but one from the first league, Out of Joint. In its week at Malvern’s lovely theatre Richard Bean’s “Pitcairn” lost the company twenty-six thousand pounds.

This appeared in a long feature by Matt Trueman that was remarkable for several reasons, and probably not those intended by the authors. The most obvious was that it had a director reporting his poor audiences. “In Leeds we played to the worst houses we’ve ever had there. The same in Exeter the week before.” “The numbers were inexorable, Exeter 105 a night, Watford 107, Hull, 56. “Even in Liverpool, only 127 a night turned up” writes the interviewer. Why Liverpool deserves its “even” is unexplained. Part of the uniqueness of this feature was it was mid-tour, hardly the best way to promote a play to future audiences.

This was one unusual aspect. Statements sit on a bedrock of assumption. Two shone through. One touched on the question of ownership, the second the issue of responsibility. The play on tour “Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage” was a co-production with the National Theatre of Wales and the Arcola. The co-producers were written out of this particular narrative. The Arcola was the last venue of the tour. If I were an Arcola manager I would be hopping mad at a director stating that a weak sales performer was heading to my theatre.

This leads on to the implied views of leadership. The author goes off on a digression into the past. It is hardly relevant since no-one would deny that Max Stafford-Clark is a figure of the greatest significance within his chosen art. Thus Sonia Friedman: “he was – and probably still is – our greatest dramaturg-director and champion of new work. He has discovered and nurtured a generation of writers who have influenced another generation of writers.”

“That roster”, writes Trueman, speaks for itself: David Hare, Caryl Churchill, Howard Brenton, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Mark Ravenhill. He has inspired them with subjects as often as they’ve inspired him with scripts, and the…method, which lets writers explore a subject collaboratively, before writing individually, has become a standard practice. His influence is immense and his body of work astounding.”

But that is undisputed. What is to hand is one production’s inability to sell. The less promising comment is “Anybody who’s worked with Max knows he’s frustrating because he’s tough and ruthless.” That is unintentionally revealing since this last adjective is out of kilter with all modern notions of leadership. One factor is evident from the article. The Director has to be a public school man. That entrenched sense of entitlement is its hallmark and indeed a glance at the biography confirms it to be the case. But the public school tradition also bred responsibility. If you are the director then the responsibility for sales is yours and nobody else’s.

This is what makes the article a reading experience of deep sadness. Britain has lost it in so many industry sectors, all varied but united by one factor, managerial conservatism. They are the bee in the uncapped bottle who never escapes due to doing over and over the one thing it thinks right. Look to costs. The author’s book “Journal of the Plague Year.” revealed little serious response to the twenty-five percent funding cut. The Board in the book’s account played no role at all. My review of the book suggested that even the accounting treatment of what was then called “Wearing the Raven” was deficient. Trueman suggests that the five weeks of rehearsal and all the development workshops are sacrosanct. From the end result it is difficult for the viewer to see why the gestation period of three years for the production was so extended.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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