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Where does theatre belong in a healthy society? It’s one of the last great unmediated experiences — it’s not edited, packaged or spun. It allows children to stare. It allows adults to believe, or not.
Surely theatre shouldn’t just be a dream palace but a mirror, a place to consider the most basic questions: what kind of people do we want to be? What kind of world do we want to live in?
I’m touring the country at the moment, speaking at any regional theatre that will have me. I’m talking from the stage about My Theatre Matters, a campaign to get audiences to tell councillors and MPs how much they value their local theatre.
Subsidy, which allows theatres to keep shows cheap, is under threat. The Con-Dem coalition’s programme of austerity may be self-defeating and unfair but it’s also left every local authority with tough decisions.
The important word in that phrase, however, is decisions. Tough though they may be, they could go either way. My Theatre Matters (MTM) would like them to go in favour of the people. Recently Westminster Council cut every penny of its tiny arts budget, 0.04 per cent of its total spend.
Meanwhile, it appointed a £125,000 director of communications to boss a £90,000 deputy and a head of media on £82,000. Those are the sort of tough decisions we are trying to affect.
MTM isn’t about moaning luvvies. It ’s about building a movement, getting every theatre in the country to talk to its public and getting those audiences to shout loud for an excellent and affordable night out.
Through postcards, curtain speeches, articles like this one, we’re recruiting hundreds of grass-roots champions every theatre can call on to say how that particular theatre has changed their life. So that by the next round of funding, theatre staff can sit down with local councillors and a big pile of postcards and say we matter.
Unsurprisingly, business and local government contributions to the arts have both fallen sharply in the last three years.
Lottery money is filling some of the gap but lottery money destroys the connection with the people that local support of a theatre gives.
Instead, subsidy for the arts is being presented as a false dichotomy. We’re always being told that it’s theatres or hospitals, playwright Alan Ayckbourn says. But what do you go to a hospital for? To get better. Why? So you can have a good night out at the theatre. We need both.
Councillors should protect and provide for local people. They should against the murderers shut the door, not bear the knife themselves. If a local theatre is threatened with closure, we would like them to think: “Not on my watch. There must be other ways to resist the cuts.”
In the end this isn’t about money, it’s about pride. A theatre belongs to its audience. It can be the hub of a community, a place to argue, laugh, cry and think or it can be a hall for hire. When asked what made the difference between local authorities who defended the arts budget and those who slashed it, the new head of the Arts Council Peter Bazalgette said simply: “Quality of leadership.” MTM wants to show those councillors who don ’t yet get the message that their constituents care.
Of course, local theatres are vital to artists too. Consider the Olympic opening ceremony, the best piece of theatre of the last few years, directed by Danny Boyle and produced by Stephen Daldry.
Both of them now make very successful and profitable films but Boyle started as an usher at the Bolton Octagon and Daldry grew up in Taunton, joining a youth theatre group there when he was 14. This came back to me when I heard that this summer, following Somerset County Council’s 100 per cent arts cut, the Brewhouse in Taunton had closed.
When theatres close we lose people. They drop out and don’t find their way onward. While we can’t say whether the lack of a Bolton Octagon or a Taunton Brewhouse will be the reason why the next Daldry or Boyle doesn’t reach the RSC or Hollywood, we can guarantee that without the food and growth those places give to our young people, finding someone to produce another Olympics opening ceremony we can be proud of will be that much harder.
Samuel West is chairman of the National Campaign for the Arts and a council member of actors’ union Equity. For information on how to get involved and support My Theatre Matters, visit mytheatrematters.com.
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