Olivia Turnbull On … The Regional Theatre CrisisDate: 8 January 2009
Olivia Turnbull is the author of Bringing Down the House: The Crisis in Britain's Regional Theatres, which was published in November. Here, she looks at the recent problems at the historic Bristol Old Vic, and how they reflect the wider issues facing Britain's regional theatres in the 21st century.
It’s unlikely there are many in theatreland not aware of the recent trials of the Bristol Old Vic. Following its closure for “refurbishment” in August 2007, the city’s historic playhouse lost its claim to the title of Britain’s oldest continuously-running regional repertory theatre. Eighteen months later, it is still technically closed, but there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel: the Arts Council is no longer threatening to remove its funding, the theatre has advertised for a new artistic director, and its windows are bright again as it plays host to Travelling Light’s Christmas production - the aptly titled Home.
Excepting a short enforced spell during the Second World War, this may be the first time the Old Vic has closed its doors since they first opened in 1766. However, it is far from being the first time the theatre has experienced difficulties. Back in the 1980s, the Old Vic saw itself hurled from one crisis to another, less the victim of current tensions over community needs and artistic policy as at present, than an ongoing rivalry between the local city and county councils. For the ten years extending from 1981 to 1991, while acknowledged as doing great work, Bristol Old Vic found itself victim of the vagaries of politics, and constantly on the brink of closure.
Had it looked around then, the theatre would have found it was far from alone in its problems. By 1995, the situation had deteriorated so far that the Arts Council produced a paper, “Drama in England”, to address the growing crisis facing theatres across the country. Anxiety focused most intently on the regional producing houses, which were perceived to be “on the brink of an irreversible spiral of decline”.
At this time, regional theatres were carrying a combined deficit of £6 million, a sum that exceeded their collective annual subsidy. Over three-quarters claimed to have debts serious enough to threaten imminent closure within two years. Almost all claimed that mushrooming financial difficulties had forced them to radically reduce their operations in the previous decades in ways that ranged from scaling down their programming with safe, small-cast seasons, taking in growing numbers of touring productions, cutting fringe/outreach activities, to going dark for extended periods.
It was hoped that the arrival of New Labour, with their recognition of the importance of culture, not least as a tool for the implementation of their policies of social inclusion and advocacy, would provide something of a reprieve. And following the findings of the 2000 Boyden Report, there was a cash injection to the tune of £25 million. But many problems seem yet to be solved. Had Bristol Old Vic looked around again when the curtain came down in 2007, it would equally have discovered it wasn’t the only one facing an uncertain future. In addition to the twin threats posed to their funding by the costly Olympics and the credit crunch, the last eighteen months have seen a resurgence of problems which seem to echo those faced by so many regional theatres in previous decades. In January 2008, a vote of no confidence in the Arts Council by actors gathered at the Old Vic was no doubt an unwelcome reminder of Peter Hall’s 1985 accusations of betrayal as he stood on a table at the National and declared the quango was “not on our side anymore”. A recent blog entry on Bristol Old Vic’s website noted:
Perhaps the closure of the city’s largest theatre is a blessing in disguise. Its enforced absence has allowed policymakers, funders, artists and, most importantly, audiences to reconsider what they want from theatre in 21st-century Bristol. (Dick) Penny has said the Bristol Old Vic should breathe out as well as in, meaning it should give life to a range of activities across the city, from new writing to circus to experimental theatre. A more varied and diverse theatre ecology is beginning to emerge.
The Arts Council and Bristol community remain committed to seeing the Old Vic open its doors again. But there are increasing questions about the form the theatre should take when it does so. And in many ways, its recent travails are a microcosm of the problems that continue to face regional theatres across the country. As Lyn Gardner recently wrote, "In the long term, many question the sustainability of our regional rep system, which is based on models that owe more to the mid-20th century than to the artistic needs and financial realities of the 21st century."
Bringing Down the House: The Crisis in Britain's Regional Theatres is out now and available from amazon.co.uk.