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Are we heading in the right direction? The decisions theatres make now will define our relationships with the communities we serve

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The decisions theatres take now about the next 12 months are going to define the relationships they have with the communities they serve for a generation, so we need to think hard about the choices open to us and make sure we’re heading in the right direction.

A decade of rising costs and stagnating public investment across the sector had already left many organisations struggling to make ends meet before this crisis; the delivery of creative learning, community engagement and other charitable objectives increasingly compromised by an existential focus on commercial viability. And although organisations had risen to this challenge by massively increasing earned income in recent years, the growing reliance on commercial activities (the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, which I run, needs to earn 90% of its turnover) is of course exactly why they have been eviscerated by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Notwithstanding the promise of emergency DCMS support for the sector last week, and the beginnings of a ‘roadmap’ to re-open venues, theatres up and down the country are continuing to announce job losses, and many are now planning for a resumption of activity in Spring 2021 at the earliest, with fingers crossed and no clear sense of how long they’ll actually be dealing with social-distancing, which as we all know is the key to any return of ‘business as usual’.

To date, with support from HMRC, most theatres have managed to retain their staff teams and undertake some level of ongoing creative or audience engagement activity, but with the end of that HMRC support in sight, this is no longer sustainable. So what do we do now?

Clearly, one approach open to theatre managements is to scale back activities and reduce costs to a level that means they can remain solvent until ‘business as usual’ can be restored – hence the current slew of redundancy announcements and the prospect of so many skilled staff being lost to the industry. But that could see a lot of theatres very quiet over the next 6-12 months, and there’s no guarantee that the longed-for return to normal trading will come before the DCMS money runs out, assuming any of it finds its way beyond the ‘crown jewels’ to grassroots regional organisations. As an approach this also, crucially, presupposes that ‘business as usual’ is our ultimate aim, which many are starting to question.

For those organisations at the less well-funded end of the regional theatre spectrum, the economics of producing and presenting quality drama, dance, music, opera etc. have become increasingly tenuous over the last 10 years, at precisely the moment when cuts to other public services have been increasing the need for theatres to play an ever wider role within the towns and cities they serve. I’m a huge advocate for the public benefit that regional theatres can deliver across a range of creative, cultural, educational and wellbeing agendas, but when the gap between the need for such a broad-based civic programme and the ability of a theatre’s core business model to pay for it gets too wide, then something’s got to give. And when you add into that the important challenges coming from campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and Freelancers Make Theatre Work about representation and the balance of power within the sector, my sense is that much of what we consider ‘business as usual’ is in urgent need of a rethink. As well as presenting us with the biggest challenge to our industry in living memory, COVID-19 has offered us an opportunity to reflect, and an invitation to change.

At the Northcott, even though the removal of most of our Arts Council England funding a decade ago forced the theatre to adopt a determinedly commercial approach to ensuring its survival, over the last couple of years we’ve started to evolve into a much more porous creative organisation, as focused on building capacity and unleashing creativity within the communities we serve as on selling tickets and ice creams. Now COVID-19 has put a rocket under that process of evolution, with the very real possibility that within the next 12 months we’ll be able to achieve a level of change that might normally have taken us another decade. That’s why the decisions we make now about those 12 months are so crucial. We’ve decided to spend a year deepening our relationships within Devon and shaping a radical new programme of opportunities for individuals and communities to ‘Get Creative’. What other theatres do will depend on whether they feel their ‘business as usual’ has had its day and the extent of their appetite for radical change.

It will also, to some extent, depend on whether Arts Council England approach the next stage of its response to this crisis as an exercise in saving institutions, or as the biggest opportunity it’ll ever have to reset the cultural sector and to respond to the locally-understood needs of local cultural ecologies – a truly place-based, human-scale creative and cultural recovery. Let’s Create, Arts Council England’s recently published and encouragingly radical new 10 year strategy, gives much cause for optimism, but it wasn’t written in the expectation of COVID-19 and the scope for direct intervention that the organisation now has. We’re about to find out whether they want to restore ‘business as usual’ or work with their theatre constituency to effect radical change.

– Daniel Buckroyd, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Northcott Theatre