Local arts cuts: “It isn’t about money, it’s about pride”

Samuel WestCroydon’s internationally renowned Warehouse Theatre closed last year when the local council withdrew its modest subsidy. Its historic building was recently demolished.

Here, actor SAMUEL WEST explains why theatre matters

Where does theatre belong in a healthy society? It’s one of the last great unmediated experiences — it’s not edited, packaged or spun. It allows children to stare. It allows adults to believe, or not.

Surely theatre shouldn’t just be a dream palace but a mirror, a place to consider the most basic questions: what kind of people do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to live in?

I’m touring the country at the moment, speaking at any regional theatre that will have me. I’m talking from the stage about My Theatre Matters, a campaign to get audiences to tell councillors and MPs how much they value their local theatre.

Subsidy, which allows theatres to keep shows cheap, is under threat. The ConDem coalition’s programme of austerity may be self-defeating and unfair but it’s also left every local authority with tough decisions.

The important word in that phrase, however, is decisions. Tough though they may be, they could go either way. My Theatre Matters (MTM) would like them to go in favour of the people.

Recently Westminster Council cut every penny of its tiny arts budget, 0.04 per cent of its total spend. Meanwhile, it appointed a £125,000 director of communications to boss a £90,000 deputy and a head of media on £82,000. Those are the sort of tough decisions we are trying to affect.

A thriving and successful studio theatre has been stabbed in the back by its own local council

A thriving studio theatre was stabbed in the back by its own local council

MTM isn’t about moaning luvvies. It ’s about building a movement, getting every theatre in the country to talk to its public and getting those audiences to shout loud for an excellent and affordable night out.

Through postcards, curtain speeches, articles like this one, we’re recruiting hundreds of grassroots champions every theatre can call on to say how that particular theatre has changed their life. So that by the next round of funding, theatre staff can sit down with local councillors and a big pile of postcards and say we matter.

Unsurprisingly, business and local government contributions to the arts have both fallen sharply in the last three years.

Lottery money is filling some of the gap but lottery money destroys the connection with the people that local support of a theatre gives.

Instead, subsidy for the arts is being presented as a false dichotomy. We’re always being told that it’s theatres or hospitals, playwright Alan Ayckbourn says. But what do you go to a hospital for? To get better. Why? So you can have a good night out at the theatre. We need both.

Councillors should protect and provide for local people. They should against the murderers shut the door, not bear the knife themselves. If a local theatre is threatened with closure, we would like them to think: “Not on my watch. There must be other ways to resist the cuts.”

In the end this isn’t about money, it’s about pride.

A theatre belongs to its audience. It can be the hub of a community, a place to argue, laugh, cry and think or it can be a hall for hire. When asked what made the difference between local authorities who defended the arts budget and those who slashed it, the new head of the Arts Council Peter Bazalgette said simply: “Quality of leadership.” MTM wants to show those councillors who don ’t yet get the message that their constituents care.

Of course, local theatres are vital to artists too. Consider the Olympic opening ceremony, the best piece of theatre of the last few years, directed by Danny Boyle and produced by Stephen Daldry.

Both of them now make very successful and profitable films but Boyle started as an usher at the Bolton Octagon and Daldry grew up in Taunton, joining a youth theatre group there when he was 14. This came back to me when I heard that this summer, following Somerset County Council’s 100 per cent arts cut, the Brewhouse in Taunton had closed.

When theatres close, we lose people. They drop out and don’t find their way onward. While we can’t say whether the lack of a Bolton Octagon or a Taunton Brewhouse will be the reason why the next Daldry or Boyle doesn’t reach the RSC or Hollywood, we can guarantee that without the food and growth those places give to our young people, finding someone to produce another Olympics opening ceremony we can be proud of will be that much harder.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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14 Responses to Local arts cuts: “It isn’t about money, it’s about pride”

  1. davidcallam says:

    Croydon Council withdrew its grant from the Warehouse Theatre because it thought it could. And it seems to have been right. The luvvies have tutted, but the vast majority of the borough hasn’t even noticed, or hasn”t reacted.
    And that’s the problem: fringe theatre is not a mass market entertainment. But a lack of subsidy doesn’t mean the end for this kind of production, though it might require the creatives to become more creative about venues.
    The Spread Eagle Theatre is surely a good example: how about The Warehouse at The Eagle?

    • That’s a little trite, glib and mainly inaccurate, David.

      Croydon Council withdrew the grant from the Warehouse Theatre because they thought that by precipitating its closure, they could make a grab for the £3 million-worth of grants from the developers of the site, and re-direct it to… The Fairfield Halls!

      It is easy for you to belittle the opposition to the closure of the Warehouse by pretending that there was none. This is simply false, but it is the kind of premise which the Philistines at the Town Hall have trotted out to justify their actions – no one’ll notice, so it doesn’t matter – for this, for the Riesco Collection, and even for the libraries service. Adopting the ostrich position of head in the sand to ignore opposition to the destruction of the arts and culture within the borough might convince the Sadvertiser. It does not reflect the truth.

      Councillors tried the same argument when they closed down the David Lean Cinema. After nearly three years of still paying expensive security costs for the venue without the cinema’s and its bar’s income (what do you mean, they never thought it through?), while the Save the David Lean Campaign continues to thrive, the notion that local luvvies don’t care about the arts in Croydon has worn thin.

      The Spread Eagle is a pub theatre. The Warehouse was a studio theatre. There is a limit to what the former can accommodate; neither venues ever catered for large audiences. But without such venues, as a nursery for new writing, acting and directing talent, there will be no new, commercially viable blockbusters in 10 or 20 years’ time. Lloyd-Webber and Rice’s first collaboration was a school play that got performed in a studio theatre. Whatever happened to them?

  2. mraemiller says:

    “how about The Warehouse at The Eagle?” I would imagine there may be a few licencing problems with that. It is difficult but not impossible. At the moment they could probably legally put on a stand-up gig but I doubt they could host a Theatre production legally. Mind you I haven’t read their licence. But apart from the space and technical constraints of promoting in the back of a pub rather than a purpose built arts venue I would imagine there may be legal issues with their type of Entertainment Licence. For example stand-up gigs used be a result of the one-person-on-stage-at-a-time rule… this loophole allowed stand-up to be staged in a larger number and different types of venues as full scale theatrical productions. The law was relaxed somewhat in 2004 which is good as we had been breaking it for decades… but there are restrictions. For example I’m not sure you can legally play music as part of the act in many venues if you were to stick to the letter of the law – although you can play music through speakers but cant sing to it. Some of these rules no one enforces and to be honest I’ve given up trying to understand them but if you were to try and put on a proper Theatre show you may hit a few legal snags.

    Leaving that aside Theatre that is starved of funding tends to degenerate or morph into one man shows and stand-up because one man or woman on stage talking at a time is the cheapest possible and lowest overhead form of entertainment to produce. And while stand up is great. It isn’t exactly “Theatre” …that takes skill and money to produce. It is an investment in the future of Britain’s creative industries. I’m not a great fan of state subsidy for the “arts” but it’s stupid to believe that if you stip away funding there wont be less shows or that small promoters would take a financial risk on technically complicated productions without arts council funding. They’d just promote whatever had the lowest overheads. If nothing else Fringe Theatre is good because it keeps all the unemployed actors away from doing stand-up. Seriously, I could con some pub and some stupid acts into doing a gig in Croydon and might lose or make money but the financial risk would be minimal. If I was to try and put on say a theatre production involving even 5 amateur actors (which I woud have no idea how to do) that’s a much more serious investment of people’s time and you’d have to guarentee some kind of financial payback on it … even if it went to chartiy. I mean acting’s like a proper job – people actually have to remember things. So if you want that …someone has to invest to create it. The reality is if the state doesn’t subsidise Theatre there would be …er …very little of it. Of course you could say “so what?” and that’s a fair point … but you cant fool yourself that if you cut funding there aren’t going to be less productions or Theatre companies would move into the back of pubs. The truth is those involve would dissapate into other areas of the workforce or other lower overhead forms of artistic endeavour. Maybe that would be a good thing. But it wouldn’t carry on the same…

    It’s like pannel shows on telly. There are too many. Once there used to be sketch shows, then someone figured out that if you just sit people behind a table the overheads are lower. And that’s true. But it’s a lack of vision. And investment.

  3. dracardweig says:

    David Callam needs to check his facts. A new company WAREHOUSE PHOENIX was formed soon after the Warehouse was clobbered by the council. So far they have raised £14,000 from a local audience – not exactly unconcerned or non reactive! The new company produced the annual International Playwriting Festival in June at Fairfield Halls and then went on to produce the outstanding play discovered in the competition – The Road to Nowhere by Sean Cook – at the Ashcroft in October to glowing reviews.

  4. davidcallam says:

    Thank you Anthony Miller for an informative piece. I learnt something from your practical experience, though I think there have already been a number of theatrical productions at the Spread Eagle, so it is at least possible.

    I was unaware that the Warehouse had helped itself. I’m delighted to hear it and I sincerely wish the company continued success in 2014 and beyond.

    See, you don’t need the council to pick up the tab all the time; you just need a bit of get up and go. And you will have to get used to it.

    Apparently, we intend to waste millions of pounds tarting up and subsidising the Fairfield, but that apart, Croydon is broke. There will be no more money for the arts in the coming years whoever wins the council elections in May

    • mraemiller says:

      The Warehouse has always survived in its various forms on a mixture of donations, subsidy and ticket sales. I dont think just giving people money is a solution but while there is arts funding Croydon should get its cut. Also it strikes me the Council must be still paying to maintain the spaces that were the Braithwait Hall and the David Lean cinema but empty. Which is completely illogical. Particularly if both theatre and cinema have moved next door. The morality of arts funding is complex but we should fight to get our fair cut while it is.

    • mraemiller says:

      They may have put on productions but… Still its not like our Council would insist on enforcing the absolute letter of the law http://insidecroydon.com/2011/12/16/pearson-turns-pantomime-villain-over-councils-attempted-ban/

    • Time has come for a change of mind set.

      Instead of regarding public funding of the arts, and other aspects of a civilised society, as “subsidy”, we should be looking at it as investment.

      There is the cultural and educational benefits of having a thriving local arts scene. But there is also a strong economic argument, too.

      Every theatre-goer, cinema attendee or gallery visitor will spend money in the area’s bars, cafes and restaurants. They might even plan a visit to coincide with a spot of shopping in a £1 billion new mall. If they enjoy the overall experience, they might even return.

      Disinvesting in local culture is not only Philistinism, it undermines the local economy.

      • gorvid says:

        Yes, it is time for a change. And INVESTMENT is the right word.
        I remember it said that it was part of the Warehouse Theatre’s success story that they attracted a travelling audience into Croydon – people who were willing to spend money getting here, and given the chance, willing to spend money in the town. That was true I bet with the David Lean Cinema too which was showing art films that otherwise you had to travel to the West End to see. The economic argument of proper investment in the arts is indisputable.

    • mraemiller says:

      Another practical problem with Theatre in pubs might be that generally the pub industry puts up with the comedy industry (by put up I mean “charges us little and often nothing for the room”) because it sells beer. Straight theatre may not sell as much booze so not be in as good a negotiating position with venues. Although there’s a possibility that if, for example, an Ibsen play is really depressing the audience might feel as though they need a pint afterwards …that might not be exactly enough for a landlord and …I’m not sure dramatic tension and structure is best served by having an interval every half an hour to encourage the punters to get progressively more drunk. Then again maybe the reason I’ve never really liked Shakespeare is the fact people have forced me to watch it sober.

      • The Spread Eagle has a very conveniently placed bar in its theatre auditorium, serving drink before, after and in the intermission in performances. In best Shakespearian tradition.

  5. I am commenting as an artist. It would be a great shame to see investment in the arts lost. I researched the role of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in British art recently. Their investment and promotion of the arts helped inspire and develop artists in this country. Art expresses the feelings of a community and the issues it faces. When those in authority support it, the community as a whole thrives.

  6. davidcallam says:

    Interesting not to have heard from Croydon Labour Party in this discussion. No grandiose promises to re-open the David Lean Cinema or the Braithwaite Hall. That’s because there’s no more publuc money for the arts.
    You might try Hammerson and/or Westfield, but you’ll have to wait in line behind their own entertainment centres – one on either side of North End.

    • Nor from the Tories – though the past six years in Croydon Town Hall has demonstrated their ignorance of the arts and economics – nor the LibDems.

      We understand the Labour manifesto will be published soon with an arts and culture policy. Meanwhile, the Tories still have yet to announce any candidates for the council elections.

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