21 Nov 2018 World leisure: news, training & property
 
 
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Leisure Management
2018 issue 1

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Leisure Management - The show must go on

Arts & Culture

The show must go on


Times of austerity have hit UK theatres hard, particularly those outside major cities. Kath Hudson looks at how provincial theatres have had to adapt and what the future holds

Kath Hudson
The Dukes Theatre staged an outdoor production of The Hobbit PHOTO: DARREN ANDREWS
Cider with Rosie was one of Worcester Live’s productions in 2017
Chris Jaeger, Worcester Live
Stephanie Sirr, Nottingham Playhouse

Whether it’s to watch a ballet or a pantomime, a musical or a play, there are few experiences which are as immersive, memorable and can gladden the soul quite like a trip to the theatre. But sadly, the UK’s smaller theatres have been one of the biggest victims of stretched local authority budgets during times of austerity.

Provincial theatres have seen their local authority funding dwindle to a trickle, or be pulled altogether. Five years ago, Nottingham Playhouse found out, via Twitter, that it would be losing all of its Nottinghamshire County Council funding within a few months. Worcester Live has seen its funding from Worcestershire County Council go from £25,000 six years ago, to £800. The Dukes Theatre, in Lancaster, Lancashire, received £160,000 from the local authority in 2010, but will get nothing thiss year. This is despite a study showing its economic impact to the area is worth £3.3m and it supports 89 full-time jobs in the supply chain.

For some, the funding shortfall has proved impossible to make up. The North Devon Theatres’ Trust went into administration last year after running into financial difficulties and had to close its two theatres in Barnstaple and Ilfracombe, blaming cuts in grant funding and a 20 per cent decrease in audience figures. The council struck a deal with Parkwood Theatres to reopen both theatres in March 2017.

Pressure on trusts
Chris Jaeger, chief executive of Worcester Live, which operates the UK’s smallest producing theatre, a festival, two weeks of outdoor events, a week of Shakespeare at the cathedral and a city ghost walk aimed at tourists, says he has to raise £650,000 every year in order to keep his organisation afloat.

Fortunately, as this cultural activity is integral to Worcester’s tourism offering, the city council values it and awards the organisation a generous £100,000 of its £12m budget. Despite this, Jaeger has to spend a lot of time making funding applications, which are becoming ever more competitive.

“I make approximately 250 funding applications to arts trusts each year, and I’m usually successful in about 20,” he says. “I never know if I’m going to get £300 or £10,000. We receive nothing from the Arts Council.”

As the traditional funding streams diminish, there are more organisations fighting for a finite amount of funding from arts trusts, and Brexit is likely to lead to the loss of more funding. Theatre operators are having to up their game and expand their skill sets beyond producing good theatre.

Many theatres have adapted, not by cutting their programmes or staff, but by tightening up operations, expanding their programme and finding other sources of income. However, they are always on the back foot and there are no reserves for unforeseen costs and keeping the ageing buildings at their best. Jaeger worries about a lift which needs fixing, and Ivan Wadeson, chief executive of The Dukes, would like to extend the bar, which isn’t big enough to cope with a capacity audience.

Narrow audiences
The other problem facing theatre operators is that theatre still does not draw in the mass market. “We aim for our audience to reflect the mix of demographics in our area,” says Stephanie Sirr, chief executive of the Nottingham Playhouse. “Nottingham is a reasonably culturally diverse city, with some terrible pockets of deprivation. We do Pay What You Can nights, but still most earned revenue comes from a handful of demographics.”

Jaeger says he also remains dependent on the same core audience and despite efforts to change the programme to reflect different groups, such as the Pakistani community, or the student population, his audience remains broadly the same. “The majority of my audience is white and over 40,” he says. “If I don’t programme for them, they don’t come either. One year I targeted the 18 to 30 market and put programmes on with them in mind, but there was little interest and it alienated the core audience.”

The situation is unlikely to change regarding local authority cuts and it’s the theatres outside London that face the toughest challenges. London fares well: the 2013 report, Rebalancing our Cultural Capital, said the city receives £20 of funding per head, compared to £3.60 elsewhere. London also has access to the tourists and the lion’s share of sponsorship and philanthropy – 88 per cent of sponsorship goes to 4 per cent of arts organisations.

Happily, many theatres are showing skilled and creative leadership to find other sources of income while continuing to anticipate the tastes and trends of the audiences. The theatre manager’s job might not be easy, but it does continue to be rewarding.

“Arts are at the core and centre of human existence,” says Jaeger. “We take people somewhere else. Every week I see something in my venues which makes me glad to be alive.”

The general public

The general public has become another essential revenue stream. As well as running friends, patrons and guardian schemes, some theatres are going further than this and applying directly to individuals for donations.

“In the US, it is generally recognised that people will fund their community arts – up to 80 or 90 per cent comes from this source,” says Jaeger. “This is growing in the UK too: 10 years ago less than 10 per cent came from this means, but now it’s more like 30 per cent.”

Worcester Live raised £8,000 by simply sending out stamped addressed envelopes to its 30,000-strong mailing list, asking people if they could donate a fiver each. The company also runs regular fund raising campaigns, like promise auctions and a 100 club which yield an impressive £50,000 a year.

Running a tight ship

Many theatres are looking at their ticketing. Wadeson says The Dukes’ complex range of concessions and group ticket prices have been rationalised in order to boost ticket yield.

Nottingham Playhouse successfully replaced all of its funding with ticket income, by reassessing its price bands and increasing the price of the top seats. With a larger capacity of 750, the theatre has had more scope in this respect than smaller theatres. Sirr says the aim is to further drive ticket sales and improve on the current 68 per cent capacity and ticket yield.

Most theatres try to boost income from food and drinks. The Dukes has grown its catering offering and doubled its revenue since 2008/9. Worcester Live makes a profit on the two bars at the venue, raising half its revenue from that.

The Dukes has looked at a variety of income streams and ways to control costs behind the scenes. “We’ve moved to a smaller, cheaper store and rent workshop facilities as and when we need them rather than all the time,” says Wadeson. “We now do 600 film screenings a year, which is a healthy income. This includes parent and baby screenings and films for those living with dementia and their carers.”

Jaeger has become more defensive about deals. Rather than pay a band or an artist a set fee he gives them a box office split, so the artist takes the risk. “Eighty per cent of the box office is the norm, but I try to get 70 per cent,” he says.

 



Ivan Wadeson runs The Dukes Theatre
Reflecting the community

Increasingly there’s a trend to take a local story and give it back to the audience. “People are feeling a bit bruised at the moment and looking for shared experiences. We aim to tell local stories, which reflect their lives back at them,” says Sirr. “We have just commissioned a play about the Nottingham Riots, which preceded the Notting Hill riots, but people outside Nottingham have rarely heard of them.”

The Dukes is doing the same with a play called Black Out, about a three-day power cut in 2015, which resulted in floods and took out phone lines. “It revives a scary, but also liberating time,” says Wadeson.

 



Increasingly, local events are providing inspiration for a theatre’s material
Ambitious programmes

Rather than cutting its programme, The Dukes has stayed ambitious.

“We’re a small organisation, but we punch above our weight and have just recruited a new artistic director, who will bring energy, ambition and new plans,” says Wadeson.

The theatre runs four productions each year, aimed at bringing three generations together for a shared experience and providing more than half the theatre’s income. Its major success story is its annual Walkabout Theatre, which runs for six weeks in a local park.

Last year it was The Hobbit, which took £250,000, played to 94 per cent attendance, scooped the UK Theatre Award for Children and Young People and received national reviews. “The Guardian said there was something Hobbit-like about a regional theatre taking on a big Hollywood film,” says Wadeson.

Sirr says there is an appetite for risky work. “When times are tough, I think people want to go out,” she says. “We’re a producing house and don’t host many touring companies. Our pantomime is popular and two of the most popular plays we have produced recently, The Kite Runner and Touched, were thought-provoking, rather than mainstream.”

 


PHOTO: JOE FILDES

The Dukes’ production of The Hobbit won awards
 


PHOTO: ROBERT DAY
Touched at Nottingham Playhouse
 
 


PHOTO:ROBERT WORKMAN
The Kite Runner was chosen because it’s thought-provoking
 

Originally published in Leisure Management 2018 issue 1

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