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English theatre "shrivelling" according to new research

22 February 2013

The English theatre scene is "shrivelling", according to research, with two-thirds of venues cancelling productions, half producing fewer new plays and commissioning fewer writers, and the same proportion obliged to insist playwrights focus on smaller cast sizes.

Sonia Friedman, a successful West End producer, warned of "a short-termism that will damage a multibillion industry over a generation" – arguing that damage done to theatre as a result of the 30% cut to Arts Council England's budget in 2010 will harm future success in TV, radio and film.

The research, which drew on detailed surveys completed by 26 English theatres, was undertaken by playwright Fin Kennedy and Helen Campbell Pickford, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford.

The report provides detailed testimony showing that the "research-and-development" side of theatre is being particularly hard hit after the cuts, as organisations hunker down to protect core work on their main stages.

But there are fears this reduction in resources available for the early development of plays – workshops, writing groups, youth theatre groups – will have a serious impact on the future health of theatre.

Sir Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, told the report's authors: "The consequences of inadequate public investment will be fewer risks, inadequate development of new work, a substantially less interesting theatrical environment and a less successful one."

Max Stafford-Clark, of theatre company Out of Joint, reported that "2012-13 is the first year in our 19-year history that [we] will not have produced a new play".

Laura Wade, the writer of the hit play Posh, about the privileged members of an elite Oxford dining club , explained how that piece of work got to the stage of the Royal Court in London: "It looked like … rapid-response to the political situation, but it had actually been in development for three years." The success of Posh, which ran in the West End in 2012 and is now being adapted into a film, "would not have been possible without that early funding for research and development time from the Royal Court", she wrote.

Nick Payne, the author of Constellations, which began in the Royal Court's 100-seat theatre, transferred to the West End and won the London Evening Standard award for best new play, reported a similarly slow and patient gestation. "Such an outcome would not have been possible without public subsidy," he told researchers. "Between 2006 and 2010 I experienced first-hand the extraordinary support the Royal Court is able to offer; a combination of one-on-one tutorials, workshops and readings."

It is precisely this kind of support that many theatres are cutting. Christopher Haydon, artistic director of the Gate theatre in London, said: "We have no money at all for R&D. So if a writer feels that they need a workshop (or even just a reading) to try something out, we can only do this on an ad hoc basis when we can find someone else to support that … all of this inevitably puts severe limitations on the creative ambitions of our writers."

Friedman, who has produced plays including The Book of Mormon and Legally Blonde – The Musical and receives no direct subsidy, urged a holistic view of drama in England, and a recognition of the fact that success in TV, radio and film is dependent on grassroots, subsidised theatre. "I don't get subsidy. I don't need it. But I do need the subsidised sector," she said. "That is where the talent finds its training. Writers, actors, designers and directors all cut their teeth in that environment … we need to take an overview of the cultural body politic."

The report was undertaken in response to an encounter between Kennedy and the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, in December 2012.

Meeting Vaizey at an event at parliament, he was surprised to hear the minister claim that the cuts had had no impact on theatre. After giving his view to the contrary, Vaizey challenged him to provide evidence: the result is the report, titled Battalions – reference to a line in Hamlet ("When sorrows come, they come not in single spies/But in battalions").

Responding to the report, Ed Vaizey said: "Theatre remains extremely well-funded in England. I am confident new writing of high quality will always have a chance to be both commissioned and performed."


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