New season means tighter belts at the region’s theatres

The spring is traditionally a time of renewal and rebirth – and so it is for the region’s theatres. After a long, colourful winter in pantomime, the spring season allows our regional theatres to channel their creative energies into new productions designed to balance classic plays with exciting new writing.

As the spring season gets under way drama balances comedy, new plays balance tried and tested favourites and everything feels better with a little music in the season. The message from all our producing theatres is, if you want to help theatres survive the current financial squeeze – book early.

Dee Evans at the Colchester Mercury said: “Having that money in the bank is so important. It’s not only a confidence boost but it also gives us the money to invest in the local economy, buying everything from paint and wood for the sets, material for set dressing and costumes, right down to stationery and catering supplies. All the money goes straight back into the local economy which means fewer people are laid off, which means that they still have money to go the theatre which means we have more to invest in the local economy and the whole thing starts again.”

All our regional theatres are suffering a seven per cent cut in funding this year after the government cut the money it gives to The Arts Council. Our theatres are already sleek, slim organisations and although audiences will not see much difference on stage, there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes cutting back on other operations in an effort to save money.

Colin Blumenau at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds said that this year there would be equal misery for all but the are significant changes on the way. The Arts Council has announced that all regularly-funded arts bodies who want to be considered by for future funding need to have re-applied by January 28. A decision as to who will be retained and who will lose their funding will be made by the end of March.


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He said: “I think the number of organisations receiving Arts Council money will be fewer but those who are left will be well looked after – at least that’s the impression I get.”

He added that perversely the theatres with the smallest Arts Council grants were in a far better position to weather the storm than their more generously funded neighbours. “Those theatres who depend entirely on Arts Council funding are significantly disadvantaged because if they lose it then they are going to be in terrible trouble. If we, at the Theatre Royal, lose our Arts Council funding, we will be in trouble but we won’t be in as much trouble as an arts organisation that gets a million pounds. We get nothing like that sort of money. It wouldn’t be life threatening.”

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He said that Bury Theatre Royal currently receives just under �129,000. “I think one of the biggest dangers in what is about to happen is that the focus will be on money rather than on the work we are doing. As far as I am concerned we have to carry on doing what we do. There’s no point in having a theatre here if it’s not being used.”

Both Sarah Holmes and Dee Evans, chief executives for the New Wolsey and Mercury Theatres agreed that it was their job to protect the integrity of what is performed on stage. They both said they would look at the possibility of employing five actors instead of six where possible but, if it was necessary to employ eight then they would employ eight. Shows were still being chosen on their individual merit not by the size of the wages bill.

They, Colin Blumenau, and Ivan Cutting at Eastern Angles all agree that times are hard and are likely to get harder, because of the uncertainty which is haunting the arts world. Everyone is re-applying for funding. On paper all our theatres appear to be ticking the right boxes when it comes to community and education work, as well as promoting new work – yet when it comes to the fine detail no-one knows for sure how the Arts Council is going to separate one application from another.

Sarah Holmes said: “There are some very interesting times ahead. The Arts Council have got some very tough decisions to make because they do not have, nowhere-near, the same amount of money to distribute as they had in the past. That’s the end of it. There’s no arguing with that and they are saying that they will be having to turn down applications from companies which are very good. It’s a very scary situation.”

It is this atmosphere of uncertainty which is going to make 2011 a rather nervous year. While all our theatres fill in forms which they hope will guarantee their survival into 2012, they have still got to stage a new season of plays which will delight and entertain audiences with a myriad of different tastes. One of the reasons that theatre-going remains so buoyant is that theatres recognise that there is no longer one audience but a multitude of different audiences with varied, and, at times, over-lapping tastes which all have to be catered for.

Sarah Holmes observed: “Times are hard, money is tight, but people do make choices as to what they want to do with their money. If we continue to offer audiences good quality shows, something that they want to see, at a price that they can afford, then I believe audiences will continue to come.”

She pauses a second before continuing: “We have to work damn hard to keep the New Wolsey under their noses because there is so much competing for their money and their time but theatre is incredibly good value for money and historically has found it easier to weather financial downturns.”

Like Dee she said that investing in local theatres meant that you were investing in the local economy because everything that didn’t go to the tax man was spent locally. She said that like all theatres they were looking very hard at their expenditure at the moment particularly as 45 per cent of their income doesn’t come via the box office.

Worringly, it’s not just Arts Council money that has a large question mark hanging over it. Theatres also receive significant funding from local authorities who are also looking to trim their spending. Sarah said: “We have done quite a significant number of cut backs in places you can’t really see. We will survive next year and the important thing is not to let the frontline suffer, and so there has been some holding off of things as well. We haven’t spent on things we were planning to.

“So next year will be fine but it’s the year after that has the question mark. But we are applying to The Arts Council for long-term, three year investment. I feel very robust if I am honest and I think that the last thing we should be doing is cutting back and curbing our ambitions. Instead we should be presenting our-self with challenges to keep developing and responding to audiences needs and desires.”

The government has made much of theatres and arts organisations tapping into money made available by wealthy individuals and businesses as part of a programme of arts philanthropy but Sarah Holmes is sceptical that it will have much impact on regional theatre. “I think everyone agrees that the real benefactors of this arts philanthropy will be the big institutions: The Royal Opera House, The RSC, The National Theatre. It’s very hard for small, regional community theatres to tap into that sort of money and that’s the way it goes. It happens that way in America, even though there is more of a culture of business supporting the arts over there.”

Colin Blumenau, however, said that he remained optimistic that local businesses could be encouraged to support the theatre generally and sponsor individual productions. “It need not be money, they could perhaps provide services or supply goods that we use and therefore don’t have to pay for.”

All the theatres are actively looking for alternative revenue streams. Bury Theatre Royal is looking to set up an endowment fund, which could help protect them from future funding bombshells while the New Wolsey Theatre has launched a series of fund-raising galas, a corporate club and bespoke business services. Meanwhile at the Colchester Mercury they are looking at developing their relationships with Europe and European theatre companies.

Dee said: “When the credit crunch first happened we said that we can’t just hunker down and ignore what’s happening. We have to get out there, start looking outwards, start forming relationships with European companies and as a result we are now in a good place to get the funding to allow this international work to happen.”

Although, money is important, it is just a means to put great theatre on stage. All our theatres have got some stunning programmes for the coming spring. The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a sparkling production of the hit musical Guys and Dolls (March 23-April 16) which reunites many of their musical regulars from the last ten years including: Ben Fox, Rosie Jenkins, Delroy Brown, Kraig Thornber and Johnson Willis. In addition there’s the touching World War II landgirl drama Lillies on the Land (February 17-19), a beautifully written tale of a terminally ill girl’s view of the world, Notes To Future Self (March 16-17) and A Passionate Woman (April 29-May14) written and starring Kay Mellor a touching comedy about a woman who, on her son’s wedding day, wonders whether she married the right man and what would have happened had she married someone else?

The Colchester Mercury are staging an elaborate version of Sheridan’s Restoration classic The Rivals (February 24-March 13) which introduced the world to the magnificent Mrs Malaprop. The cast has been drawn from the Mercury’s extended repertory company. This is followed by another classic A View From The Bridge (April 14-30), Arthur Miller’s powerful tale of desire, betrayal and justice. Dee Evans directs Gillian Cally and Emily Woodward in Assumption (May 26-June 11), a warm and funny play by Simon Turley. Set in rural Ireland and by turns hilarious and poignant, Assumption follows the fortunes of Gabriella, a young single girl who falls pregnant without having committed the requisite sin.

At the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, they are staging one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies Much Ado About Nothing (February 10-26) directed by Abigail Anderson with music by Pat Whymark, this is followed by Dangerous Corner (March 10-19) by JB Priestley which centres around a meal due to be enjoyed by the bright young things of 1930s Britain, only to find that their lives are not as perfect as they had believed.

Then there’s April in Paris (April 4-9), from Hull Truck, written and directed by John Godber and starring Coronation Street’s Wendi Peters. Al and Bet are stuck in a romance rut when they win a holiday to Paris. Nominated for the 1994 Olivier Comedy of the Year, it examines how people’s relationships either develop and grow or crumble.

Meanwhile, Eastern Angles will be launching Up Out O’ The Sea (March 4-June 4) by Andrew Holland as their spring tour. In a small town on Suffolk’s eroding coastline, life goes on pretty much as usual until Carrie arrives investigating a 30-year-old lifeboat tragedy. As lost lives and loves are dredged to the surface the past becomes clearer and locals learn to face up to the future.

For full details of the spring seasons of all our major producing theatre companies visit their websites: www.wolseytheatre.co.uk; www.mercurytheatre.co.uk; www.theatreroyal.org and www.easternangles.co.uk

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