Jo Caird: Should Theatre-makers Move to London?Date: 16 June 2011
This week I went to see Heartbreak Soup, a really charming and imaginative two-hander about a little boy undergoing a heart transplant. The reason the show exists is partly down to the Empty Space, an organisation “producing and supporting theatre in the North of England”, which was founded as a result of a feeling held by producers Natalie Querol and Caroline Routh that opportunities for theatre makers in the North East weren’t what they should be. They saw artists moving to London and thought it was a shame that talent was being lost when it didn’t need to be due to a lack of support.
London undoubtedly exerts a tyranny over the rest of UK theatre. The capital has more theatre spaces, more audiences, better transport infrastructure to enable those audiences to reach all those theatres, a huge community of theatre makers, more journalists looking for the next big thing and a great deal more money (around half ACE’s budget goes to London based organisations) – for an artist from the regions planning his or her next move in theatre, relocating to London might seem like an obvious choice.
But things are never quite that simple. London may have a great deal to offer, but exactly the things that make it great also make it a very challenging place to be. It’s hard to be noticed when there are so many other people making work and it can be difficult to access the capital’s myriad communities without massive advertising budgets. Euan Borland of new writing company Made from Scratch, who moved to London from Edinburgh to train and has stayed ever since, believes there is also a sense in which theatre is “taken for granted” in London, while it might be more valued in a regional context.
The Empty Space’s co-founders are both passionate advocates of theatre in the North East but they acknowledge that London has the edge in some respects. Their work is therefore all about trying to level the playing field. For example, Natalie Querol mentions the fact that venues in the North East are less willing to take risks with work because their audiences tend to be more conservative in their tastes, which means that artists based in the region often miss out on seeing really ambitious theatre. So the Empty Space works with venues to tempt them to be braver with their programming, block booking tickets for their artist members so that the venue knows it can make a decent return. The organisation also arranges masterclasses, scratch performances and informal meet-and-greets to give local practitioners a chance to see the work and pick the brains of the companies doing the best work in the field, whether that be devised theatre, new writing or whatever else.
It would naïve to suggest that anywhere in the regions is going to be able to rival London anytime soon when it comes to resources, but the capital is by no means the be all and end of theatre in this country. If we want our theatre to reflect and be of interest to Britain’s myriad diverse communities, it is essential that talented artists are enabled and encouraged to make work in the regions, and also that the critical community is willing to engage with that work.