An additional £25m is to be pumped into support for the over-stretched theatre sector. How far will it go towards solving underlying problems? Charlotte Jones explores some of the implications for both winners and losers in the Arts Council of England?s Theatre Review.
ITC consists of 500 diverse, creative organisations, 80% of whom are non-building based, producing theatre, which ITC defines broadly as ?any live artistic activity happening before an audience? - drama, dance, circus, street performance, puppetry, multi-media, mime? the list is not exhaustive and is ever open to new suggestions. These organisations are as varied in scale and mode of operation as they are in the range of work they create and the diversity of audiences they reach ? performing through the streets, in theatres from the smallest arts centre to London?s West End, in schools, community centres, prisons, fields - virtually everywhere throughout the UK and the world. One of the most significant challenges affecting this sector has arisen from the Arts Council of England (ACE) Theatre Review, the impact of which has to be considered not just in terms of the organisations that directly benefited, but also those that did not.
I am hopeful that producing theatres, who received Gerry Robinson?s ?Lion?s share?, will feel that they have been given the injection of funds that they needed to achieve stability and enable them to look outward for exciting creative partnerships to develop new audiences and new work. 80 of ITC?s members will be in receipt of new money from the Theatre Review by 2003/4, but this unprecedented increase raised a number of issues. Those expecting a huge explosion of new work in 2003 will, almost certainly, be disappointed. The Theatre Review money will contribute towards reducing the enormous human subsidy of the arts by unpaid or underpaid labour.
Pay and conditions
Many of the recipients rightly intend to use a significant part of the new funding to improve pay and conditions. Doo Cot, a Manchester-based Puppet Theatre Company, is run by two dedicated and visionary women who, as Co-Artistic Directors, have been paid no more than £150 per week in 10 years. They have never been in a position to employ a full-time administrator. Once this company?s rise takes effect in 2002/3 it will be able to consider for the first time paying the Artistic Directors the Equity minimum and obtaining union recognition for the company. The company is firmly committed to diversification of the art form, breaking out from the confines of traditional theatre and exploring new ways of developing its audience through web-based installations and other use of new technology. They will receive £119,355 by 2004, which represents for them an increase of 326%. For this company though, the challenge is still about careful juggling of priorities. Building innovative and exciting work and reaching new audiences is paramount, but as Neenagh Watson (Co- Artistic Director) says ?Puppetry has suffered low status. It is essential to raise its status by implementing good management practice and proper professional working conditions to support the development of the art?.
The arts are currently facing an acute shortage of managers. Years of under-funding and an uncertain career path in theatre have caused a haemorrhage of these essential personnel out of the sector and a dearth of new people being developed. Salaries are rising dramatically to attract new management talent.
In 1998 ITC conducted a survey of salary scales in the ?independent? sector. We were not surprised to find them depressingly low with the average salary for the lead manager of an organisation with a turnover greater than £200,000 at just over £19,000. In the last few months several of these companies have been advertising lead manager posts (usually for at least the second time) at over £30,000. Funding levels are unlikely to match these salary requirements even for Theatre Review money recipients.
Equity too will be expecting to see some improvement in performers? wages as a result of the ACE Theatre Review. Yet it must be recognised that a relatively small percentage of ITC companies will be receiving increases by 2002/3 (and those only in England).The ITC/Equity UK minimum wage must remain attainable to the widest range of companies in order to protect working conditions for performers across the sector.
The Gulf Widens
The disparity between the opportunities for revenue-funded companies and the project- and un-funded organisations continues to increase. Cardboard Citizens, a London-based company approaching its 10th year of working with homeless people through theatre, has not yet received a promise of Theatre Review money (though it is on a London Arts waiting list). It faces the administratively onerous task of trying to meet its core costs through project funding. These costs are dramatically increased by the reporting and monitoring requirements of the range of different bodies from whom it receives grants. There is currently no route for companies like Cardboard Citizens to achieve the adequate revenue funding that is needed to simplify its administration and free it to get on with producing art.
Freedom to plan
A good example of a company for whom the Theatre Review money will provide this freedom is Pilot Theatre Company in Yorkshire. It is in the process of planning, building its IT capability and commissioning a writer so that by the time its 401% increase takes effect in 2003/4 it can harness its potential and run with it. This is the first time the company has been able to plan more than 6-9 months ahead. Released from the administrative burden of relying on project funding, it is able to be more strategic, concentrate on development and look to engaging a range of artists and creative professionals to diversify its work. Marcus Romer, Pilot?s Artistic Director is adamant, however, that the new money will not be used to increase core staff ? ?we do not want to become centrally heavy ? our strength lies in our fluidity and flexibility.?
Being light on its feet is an essential feature of the independent touring company and one that is vitally important to preserve. Theatre Review money will give companies like Pilot the opportunity to look beyond its current boundaries (both physical and artistic) to produce high quality international work to raise the profile of theatre for young people. Like Doo Cot, Pilot is interested in blurring the edges of the art form we call ?theatre? and creating a new language to inspire the theatre makers of tomorrow.
Developing the art form
Battersea Arts Centre will receive Theatre Review money to support its work in developing new and emerging companies. Caroline Routh (General Manager) says ?we were doing it anyway but this money will enable us to pay for it properly. We hope to provide for artists the conditions for experimentation and development. We will be able to invest in commissioning, providing artistic director and administrative support, and marketing properly to build new audiences for new work?. What this money still does not address is the problem of paying artists a living wage. The human subsidy of theatre continues.
New and emerging companies are vitally important to the UK theatre ecology. They don?t expect instant revenue funding ? they are committed, resourceful, imaginative and resilient ? but they do require support, development opportunities and some hope of getting a foot on the first rung of a viable funding ladder. Co-Artistic Director Steffi Muller of Hoi-polloi in Cambridge says of their Theatre Review money ?the offer has come in the nick of time. We have struggled for years on thin legs with large shoulders. At last we can afford an office and a manager/producer and can begin to plan and develop our work properly.?
The way forward
ITC?s main concern, post-ACE Theatre Review, is to make sure that progress does not stop. Injecting £25m into the theatre infrastructure in England is undeniably a good start, but we are now concerned that the current pre-occupation with funding system restructuring is distracting from the real ?Next Stage?.
For the development of an effective strategy to create a genuine career path for companies and individual artists and managers within theatre, there needs to be:
? Effective communication and co-operation between the administrations of all four countries in the UK. Artistic development opportunities should not be restricted by political boundaries
? A UK-wide strategy to address the problem of recruitment and retention of skilled personnel for the theatre sector including effective ways of encouraging people from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds to join the profession
? A coherent and transparent range of funding opportunities to encourage development of emerging talent and to provide stability as artistic organisations grow, including a fast-track mechanism for rewarding and building on success
? A breaking down of the artificially created art form boundaries (how have we come to need funding departments for combined arts?)
ITC companies are united by a common ethos: a commitment to growth and development underpinned by good management. Through their groundbreaking work in social inclusion and education they are fulfilling key government priorities. It is a diverse and grown-up sector, collaborating confidently and pushing the boundaries of theatre to create new methods of communication to new audiences. Theatre is not dead, but it will be if the new is not nurtured.
Charlotte Jones is Director of the ITC t: 020 7403 1727 e: email@example.com.
No Limits?, the ITC Summer Event, is taking place on July 6 at the University of Greenwich, and will include the debate ?Theatre is dead ... long live Theatre?. Contact Sarah Barrow, Events Co-ordinator e: firstname.lastname@example.org, w: http://www.itc-arts.org