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Jo Caird: Should there be a SOLT for London's Off West End?

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I concluded last week's post with the words, “There is no association representing London's fringe and Off West End venues in the way that SOLT represents its members, but in the absence of such a body fighting for the sector, large-scale surveys such as 'The Fringe and Off West End Report 2011' can be of immense value”. This wasn't something I'd ever considered before, but since then, I haven't been able to get the topic out of my mind: should there be a SOLT for London's Off West End?

For those of you not familiar with SOLT, the Society of London Theatre is the trade association that represents the producers, theatre owners and managers of the major commercial and grant-aided theatres in London. Its roles include negotiating with the various entertainment trades unions, advising on legal issues, lobbying on legislation and promoting theatre to the public through marketing campaigns, publications and the Olivier Awards. The body looks after the West End primarily, but has members and affiliate members from the Off West End sector too, such as the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, the Unicorn and Theatre Royal Stratford East. Any London theatre, regardless of stature, capacity or turnover, is welcome to apply for membership, but because only those who sign up to the Theatre Management Association's (TMA, SOLT's sister association, which operates nationally) union contract agreements are eligible, a huge swathe of London's small-scale, shoe-string budget venues are essentially excluded.

There is, of course, another trade association these smaller theatres can join. The Independent Theatre Council (ITC) does excellent work representing performing arts organisations and practitioners across the UK, including those who can't pay the ITC's union agreed minimum rates (although all are encouraged to do so). In terms of lobbying and contractual negotiations, the ITC's role is similar to that played by SOLT and, in fact, many London venues – Battersea Arts Centre and the Finborough to name just two – are members. It's tempting to conclude, therefore, that the sector's needs are being met by the situation as it stands.

I'd argue, however, that there are a number of ways in which London and UK theatre could benefit from Off West End venues having a trade association of their own. It implies no insult to theatres operating outside London to acknowledge that Off West End theatre is a unique cultural product that comes with its own distinct challenges for theatre-makers and opportunities for cultural tourism. A new body would recognise and celebrate this fact.

Crucial to the success of an Off West End trade association would be a joined-up approach covering not just the nitty gritty of union dealings and health and safety regulation, but also a commitment to raising the profile of the sector with audiences in London, the UK and abroad; supporting emerging practitioners working in the capital's smaller theatres; commissioning sector-wide research such as the surveys I wrote about last week (see last week's post here); and facilitating resource sharing between venues.

There are organisations out there ticking some of these boxes. OffWestEnd.com, for example, is an alliance of over 100 London venues that was established to champion Off West End theatre and help it achieve the same level of recognition as that enjoyed by Off Broadway in New York. As well as the website, which brings together a huge amount of information about the sector in one place and facilitates ticket buying, OffWestEnd.com runs the Offies, annual awards that celebrate theatres and productions that don't qualify for London's other theatre awards.

Then there's the London Theatre Consortium (LTC), a loose collaboration of 12 leading London producing houses exploring how they might work together to share resources and innovation and benefit from collective buying power. TasteTheatre.com, the website the LTC launched last November, does a similar job to OffWestEnd.com, albeit in a prettier, snazzier way (for more on TasteTheatre.com, see my post on it here).

And on a more local level we have Camden Theatres, which helps venues in the borough engage better with the community and find new revenue streams, as well as working with creative producers to achieve their fundraising aims and get projects off the ground.

If the different functions of all these organisations – from the ITC to Camden Theatres – could be combined in one association, just think of the potential for the Off West End as a whole. I realise that such a thing is much easier said than done, but if the industry is going to weather the storm of funding cuts and recession, clever collaboration is key.

The difficulty with small-scale theatre, whether in London or elsewhere, is that it's very hard to turn a decent enough profit to plough money back into an organisation's ongoing development. Many venues don't even make enough cash to pay their performers or administrative staff, let alone the (very reasonable) membership fees set by the various trade associations. Any association set up to represent London's Off West End as a whole would need to be affordable to even the very poorest pub theatres. 

Meeting the needs of organisations with very different business models – ie the theatres on the upper and lower ends of the Off West End spectrum – would be a significant challenge. A 500-seat producing house with an international reputation bears little similarity in terms of the way it is run to a local pub theatre operating on a profit-share basis. Perhaps a two-tier membership system could be implemented – enabling the participation of as many of London's Off West End venues as possible, while keeping the definition of 'Off West End' as broad as possible to the ultimate advantage of 'brand Off West End'.

It's worth noting that neither OffWestEnd.com nor TasteTheatre.com nor Camden Theatres charge their associate theatres anything to join: the former is funded through private sponsorship and money raised when theatres occasionally buy advertising on the site; TasteTheatre.com is funded by Arts Council England; and Camden Theatres is funded by Camden Council. These are all funding models that could be explored, but realistically, a sector-wide association on a similar model to SOLT would cost far more to run than any of these three organisations. Another funding solution would need to be found.

The commercial sector already does a great deal to support theatres and practitioners outside the West End, with charities such as the Mackintosh Foundation and Stage One (which is partly funded by SOLT) awarding funding that benefits emerging artists and a wide range of organisations. But more could be done, given how integral the Off West End is to London's theatre ecology as a whole. It's not just that so many performers, creatives and administrators who end up in commercial theatre begin their careers in the Off West End sector, and that therefore it makes sense for the West End to ensure the good health of its little sister. There's also the fact that several of London's smaller houses are now consistently making work that transfers successfully to the West End and benefits it directly.

The expertise necessary for such this ambitious venture is already there within SOLT/TMA and the ITC, and Off West End theatres have shown that they're ready to work together for the best of the sector and UK theatre as a whole. Should there be a SOLT for London's Off West End? I say yes.


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