Theatre can fight back against the economic downturn if it sees the situation as a challenge to the imagination, as Charlotte Jones discovers in the fourth piece in our series on the recession.
Travelling around the UK talking with members, the Independent Theatre Council (ITC) has been getting a picture of how the current economic climate is affecting the performing arts, and exploring what this sector can do to make itself more resilient in these turbulent and unpredictable times. The response has not been uniformly gloomy – in many cases quite the opposite. One of the enduring strengths of our sector is its enterprising spirit and tendency to see problems as challenges ripe for solving. “We’ve never had any money, so what’s new?” commented the manager of one unfunded Midlands-based touring company. “It’s a challenge to the imagination – our strength lies in finding interesting ways of doing things differently,” said the Artistic director of a site-specific touring company.
Gold from straw
Arts managers, administrators and producers, particularly in the touring sector, are used to making a lot happen with a little, and the best of them have developed qualities that make them ideally placed to deal with some of the problems arising out of a recession. They don’t expect to get rich; they expect to have to work hard to earn every penny and make every penny count; they have a strong vision and passion for the art they are helping to create; they are excellent networkers and don’t give up when one avenue closes; they are flexible and resourceful and see alternative ways of approaching a problem; they understand their audiences and care what they think. The administrator of an unfunded regional touring company admitted, “actually, to be honest I’m feeling quite energised by all this”. “Ticket sales are more than holding up – we’ve had our best Christmas ever,” was the comment from an established rural touring company a few months ago.
Across the UK we are receiving consistent reports in relation to attendance. Audiences are still there, tickets are selling, people seem to be choosing the live performing arts as a worthwhile way to spend the small amount of disposable income they still have. So what is that about? Could it be that they are looking for more meaning and engagement in their lives and see the arts as providing that? Have they finally given up on retail therapy? Can this trend continue? One commentator cynically suggested that people are just using up their redundancy pay at the moment. One thing I feel sure of is that if people are looking to the arts for meaning and engagement, then we had better make sure that we are providing it. Never has quality and integrity been so important. Never has the temptation to stray from the path been so strong. Chasing ever diminishing pots of funding places companies in danger of ‘mission drift’. Integrity, vision and intention can be lost as companies try to fit their ideas to the (sometimes bizarre) schemes that become available.
I was heartened by one young administrator from a London-based participatory project who said to us: “We’ve had a disappointing response from trusts and foundations in the past six months, so we’re just having to diversify – find new ways to make our work happen.” Even though audiences are holding up they are not booking much in advance. “It’s all about holding your nerve at the moment. Shows are selling eventually but most tickets are bought at the last moment,” was the comment from one London-based touring company, and it was echoed by many.
“Cash flow is the main problem because audiences are booking late and venues are paying late,” observed a Yorkshire-based touring company.
Attack of nerves
Inevitably, unreliable income and diminishing funding possibilities are making many people nervous and leading to a risk-averse mentality. These were the comments of two young people’s theatre (YPT) companies last week: “We’re just hunkering down to survive the storm,” and “We’re cutting costs as much as possible – our general manager is leaving next week.” The YPT sector seems to have been hit particularly hard by changing attitudes and practices in schools. Two more observations from this sector: “We make most of our income from schools but this year we can’t get the bookings,” and “When budgets are tight, teachers seem less confident about making decisions. The decision whether to book us is passed up the chain of command, delayed and then often dropped. It’s frustrating we have to work so much harder, build new relationships often to no avail.”
Given that cash flow is a key problem and that companies have to be resourceful in finding new ways of making and marketing their work, we are not surprised at the level of concern expressed at the Arts Council England’s (ACE) new Sustain fund (AP195). Whilst appreciating the awareness of and willingness to respond to recession-caused problems, the sector is worried that it may end up being yet another ‘rewarding failure fund’ and that it is aimed at bigger, building-based organisations. The availability of Lottery money for capital projects in theatre has led, over the past decade, to an overemphasis on the built environment. We have some stunning newly built and refurbished buildings, which echo with emptiness, smell suspiciously ‘new’ after being ‘open’ for a couple of years, and are obviously not making the most of their assets. Of course there are wonderful examples of the opposite scenario – Live Theatre in Newcastle buzzes with life and a diverse range of activity even on a day when there is no theatre happening on the stage. Farnham Maltings was transformed from a sleepy, partially derelict Arts Centre into a vibrant, welcoming space with lots happening, not because of a major Lottery-funded new-build, but because its new Director’s philosophy was “It is never about the buildings but the people in them. Buildings don’t make art, people do.” Battersea Arts Centre survived a closure threat by its local authority by keeping a high profile, radically re-imagining the space and drawing attention to the art. It’s another place that teems with life now.
Surviving the recession in theatre will not happen through big bailouts for buildings. Small, short-term interventions to help innovative practice would go a long way with enterprising organisations accustomed to doing a lot with a little. And one final thought… Loans. Why is the L-word such a dirty word? The closest ACE ever gets to mentioning it is to talk about guarantee against loss. Does no-one ever consider the possibility that an imaginative arts organisation, supported in taking bold steps to provide a hungry audience with meaning and engagement at a time when they are gagging for it, might actually make money and pay it
Charlotte Jones is Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Theatre Council.