Sorry, Regional Theatre Is Dead & BuriedDate: 11 March 2002
While our regional theatre Big Debate continues, Whatsonstage.com's Yorkshire-based reviewer Ian Watson argues that we're asking the wrong questions about what's happening outside London - and that answers to the right questions are unpleasant ones.
Where's the best regional theatre? That's the question posed in the current Whatsonstage.com Big Debate. My question - and a more accurate one, I'd venture - is what regional theatre? We have a serious semantic problem with the very term. Regional theatre has been hi-jacked, following a search-and-destroy campaign of more than 20 years by the Arts Council and its regional toadies (themselves hi-jacked ten or more years ago and transformed from energetic and creative decentralists into lickers of the London totem).
Forget the basic tenet voiced by Maynard Keynes, father of the Council, when he said: "How satisfactory it would be if different parts of this country would again walk their several ways as they once did and learn to develop something different from their neighbours and characteristic of themselves. Nothing can be more damaging than the excessive prestige of metropolitan standards and fashions." In 2002, regional theatre is no more and metropolitanism rules, OK.
West End Wannabes
Forget, too, sterile debates about whether London theatre is better than regional theatre. There is no contest. London theatre, though profoundly degraded and only recently showing signs of re-emerging in decent nick, manifests a quality and variety which nothing in the regions can begin to match. What the regions have are garages for pre- and post-London tours, alternating with journeyman filler tours (not always negligible but which will clearly never breach the M25) and a seemingly endless porridge of tribute band tours (the season brochure of one such garage in the north currently programmes no fewer than four different Abba bands into one period).
The regions also have wannabe-West End theatres, many of which were once regional theatres but which today churn out one-size-fits-all bland product aimed at an amorphous metropolitan clientele. It is significant that Whatsonstage.com's shortlist of the six 'favourite regional theatres' all fall into this category of wannabe-WEs and not one of them can make any realistic claim to being a regional theatre within the meaning of the term as established over the years.
Regional vs Repertory
The basic essential of the regional theatre - the approved successor term to 'repertory theatre', which passed from usage some 25 years ago - is a creative engine consisting of a company of actors, technicians, artistic director and probably resident playwright, which works for a defined geographical audience as an MP supposedly does for a constituency, a priest for a parish, a doctor for a surgery list. The relationship is fundamental and symbiotic. Typically, actors, technicians and writers (but not necessarily directors) might be relatively young, for the regional theatre was seen as a prep school in which theatre artists could hone their skills. (In passing, we can note that there was also a vigorous and sporadically exciting nursery of small-scale touring theatre companies until the Arts Council wiped out more than 100 of them more or less at a stroke around 1995 - but that is for another time.)
It was in this environment that the young Alan Ayckbourn could learn his craft by having seven of his apprentice scripts performed on stage before he was exposed to the commercial imperatives of the West End. It was in this environment, too, that Peter Cheeseman and his company at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent (including the playwright Peter Terson) created some of the finest regional theatre of the 20th century with a series of local documentaries - who will forget The Jolly Potters, The Knotty or The Staffordshire Rebels, amongst many? - in the 1960s and 70s. Nor was that unique: one thinks equally of The Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday night in the days when that city really had a regional theatre to be reckoned with. And it was from this environment that nearly all the UK's finest actors emerged.
The model is neither eccentric nor original. The permanent company has been the norm throughout European theatre for decades and in some cases centuries. It was, until the most recent edicts from Stratford, the very base on which the reputation of the Royal Shakespeare Company was built.
The Past Tense
But now, we must talk of the regional theatre in the past tense. Vestiges remain, buried away and frowned upon by authority, in remote corners, but by and large the Arts Council and its cohorts have, through a combination of intellectual laziness and craven carelessness, wiped out the regional theatre and replaced it with rootless, but administratively simpler to control, universal ad hoc casting. And you can be sure that Chris Smith's £30m extra to theatres in the regions won't restore regional theatre anywhere - indeed, York Theatre Royal, which has clung on to bits of the tradition, was denied a penny of the new money. What it will do is pay for flashier marketing and ever more extravagant pitches towards the capital from the wannabe-WEs.
So by all means let us celebrate the work of all six theatres named as the top 'regional theatres' in the Whatsonstage.com poll. Not one of them has a company, two don't even have an artistic director and three have artistic directors with London addresses. Two, if not three (if not four, indeed), have abjured the claim to be regional theatres at all by referring to themselves in publicity as being "the National Theatre of the North". All give house room to excellent theatrical productions, a high proportion of which appear to be aimed clearly at London audiences rather than pitched for a home market - as is borne out by the number of transfers, most of which are factored in before productions even open.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, to take but one example, may be doing lots of wonderful things - including opening its building as an all-purpose social centre catering for everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to mum'n'toddler sessions - but most of its productions would be as much at home in the city's long-established garage, the Grand Theatre (which is left to scrabble around in the second-eleven pickings of the touring circuits); and theatre lovers wanting to be part of the creative excitement of a regional theatre are left out in the cold.
The Mortality of Ayckbourn
Does it all matter, so long as the product is perceived to be of high quality? I venture to say yes, it matters very much; for where, without the regional theatres, will our future theatre come from, where stimulated, where nurtured? We are already noticing acting standards in decline and a profoundly worrying lack of quality new writing. The Yorkshire Playwrights organisation, which has nurtured many of the finest playwrights in the north of England and seen a number achieve national and international acclaim, is on its last legs, its support totally withdrawn by Yorkshire Arts, its members so disillusioned by the death of regional theatre (in which they wish to work) that they now make their livings exclusively in television and radio.
DO YOU AGREE WITH THE ABOVE? DO YOU DISAGREE?