An extra £25 million will be doled out to a lucky 194 drama organisations, the Arts Council of England (ACE) announced in a press conference held today at the Soho Theatre in central London. ACE's news follows the Government's own increased funding for the sector, bringing the total amount of new funds up to 2003/2004 to £70 million, an increase of some 72%.

ACE says that the new money represents the largest increase in public funding ever for a single art form. Gerry Robinson, chairman of the Arts Council, hailed the "bold, imaginative and fair" allocation of monies as a major turning point in the fortunes of the performing arts sector. The time of "scrimping and saving" on standstill funding is over, he said. "After literally decades of financial misery, theatre has at last got a real reason to celebrate."

The new funding package focuses on: providing more and better theatre across England; increasing support for new work by new actors, directors and writers; expanding the number and reach of touring productions; and investing in work for children, young people, and black and Asian communities. With those aims in mind, a full 83% of the monies will go to producing companies, while 12% will be spent on promotion and presenting infrastructure, and 5% will be held back for flexible funds.

During the 18-month Theatre Review, every professional theatre and production company operating in England was evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the Regional Arts Boards and ACE's specially appointed Theatre Committee. Individual increases range from £10,000 to £480,000 in new funds. Some of the big winners are: the Mercury Theatre, Colchester with a 120% increase (£379,228); the Komedia, Brighton with a 238% increase (£95,000); English Touring Theatre with a 25% increase (£129,155); and Oxford Playhouse with a 405% increase (£201,000).

It was no accident either that the press briefing was held at the Soho Theatre, which also acts as a centre for new writers. The Soho reopened in its new, custom-built premises a year ago this week and learned today that it will benefit from a 130% (£328,546) increase in ACE funding. Commenting on the windfall, Soho artistic director Abigail Morris said that it was the "best birthday present we could hope for".

There were, however, a handful of losers in the funding lottery, namely York's Theatre Royal, the Swan in Worcester, Chester's Gateway Theatre and the Warehouse in Croydon. They will have to make do with current levels of funding.

On the whole, however, the news was good, with funding prayers answered for the majority of organisations. The issue now is no longer about money, said Gerry Robinson, effectively throwing down the gauntlet to stage practitioners at today's briefing. He challenged them to stop relying so much on "nostalgia" and to embrace the future of the dramatic art form instead.

"The new investment will give creative people in theatre greater artistic freedom and it will also make a huge difference to the many thousands of people who enjoy the experience of live theatre," said Robinson. "It is now up to those working in theatre to deliver."

- by Terri Paddock