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.
And while there may be more funding opportunities in the capital, living and working costs there are far higher. There’s nothing like running a company out of your bedroom because you can’t afford office space to limit your creative ambitions. Alan Lane, artistic director of Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low, points to the beautiful railway arches space he and his team call home, remarking that “a company like us couldn't afford that resource in London, so we're pretty thankful to be here”.
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.