Is the arch still required?

What will theatres of the future look like? In a time of economic uncertainty and when there seems to be continual government budget cuts and the crowds are support funding cuts to the arts (The Stage 30 June 2016) does the future look bleak? Or is it a Doctor Who opportunity, time to regenerate our theatres and venues?

Some venues are becoming multipurpose with a wide variety uses and more productions are being accommodated with less restrictions. But there are still many venues that have not made this transition whether it is due to funding or tradition. Has the 1900 year tradition where the audience sits in rows looking at the proscenium arch become outdated or has it just become too restrictive for users and creative writers so therefore having its own repercussions on income as only a certain type of production can play to a restricted interest audience.

A new question arises, “Will funding cuts really ruin the arts financially or are the arts bringing it on themselves?” Am I saying we should do away with tradition of an arch? Of course not, but remind ourselves that modern day imagination sees beyond a picture frame style of theatre.

In 2010 the Guardian published an article about theatres being high contributors to the carbon footprints and two years later the Arts Council of England introduced an element into its criteria to encourage the arts to examine their impact on the environment, with the same organisation’s introduction of diversity into the criteria in 2010, it almost seems like ACE aren’t keen to give out funding or is it just they can see beyond tradition?

While there is enough acknowledgement that cuts in funding will continue in the currently climate, there are a lot of people in the industry who will just dig heals in demanding that funding improves, which won’t do any good as when the money has finally gone it won’t be able to just reappear.

Organisations like The New Art Exchange Gallery in Nottingham that heavily rely on funding as they only generates 18% of its income are going to be the worst hit. By contrast and an excellent example to the Arts Industry is the Leicester Curve, a building project that was overrun and well over budget, but now has become a money maker cutting it’s dependency on funding from 33% to 25% with a program that continually looks at ways to become financially better off (ITV News 20 July 2016).

No money has ever been guaranteed as any funding body could collapse or have its own funding cut at any time. Regional’s need to open up by looking out for new ways of being funded this may include going down the commercial line and have local business support, there is always opportunity to help each other in a partnership. But more than that looking at how they spend the money given through funding, what costs could be cut and I don’t mean making staff redundant. But the fact is funding criteria’s are going to get tougher, having to show budget and proving some sort of percentage to self-funding will always be on the cards.

Creating a new diversity of use to a space opens the door to new opportunities which have a high chance of leading to more income. Just imagine what would happen if a venue redeveloped its main auditoria that just has a proscenium arch format into a format where the incoming company had a choice of either an arch, being in the round or a bit of both and still have the same number in their audience. I know there are venues that currently have studios on the side, but these are often smaller then the main auditorium, and not every venue can afford or get the permission to build studios.

If a venue is being redeveloped why not make it far more environmentally friendly, while the cost of installing systems which have a lower impact on the environment can be high, this is usually accompanied by high long term savings. There are money making schemes, for example what if a venue had solar panels it would reduce spending on electricity during the season and during the dark period its feeding electricity back into the National Grid.

There are theatres that taking in conferences and weddings which is a wonderful way to utilise their spaces. But there are also theatres that are possibly too picky on what they accept, even when the production offers to do a profit share. So as a producer when you encounter this response you understand further why we have a public that supports funding cuts to the arts, it looks like the industry just wants free hand outs year on year.

Most theatres plan their seasons months in advance, if it was done on a week to week bases there would never be an audience. So why are we planning theatre funding that way? Do we need to stop thinking about a theatre for tomorrow and start thinking of the imagination of the new works of the future?

Theatre for the Rich

In November 2016 we heard about the Birmingham Rep having its funding cut from the local authority by more the 62%. Though with its international reputation and status the Rep could easily get that money back with just by a slight increase in ticket prices, but if they do that they risk pushing some people outside the threshold of being able to afford the enjoyment of theatre on that scale. Is it possible that over time theatre could become an exclusive club for the rich enough? Theatre regardless of the complaints about diversity has always aimed to be inclusive with its audiences and is one of the main reason theatres became subsidised. Right here in this moment one local authority is forcing a theatre into choosing their audience, is that fair?

With the end of the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Korea coming to a close this weekend it seems appropriate to mention that it is not just theatre that is affected by funding cuts. It seems that cuts in funding continued to be a running theme for 2017 as we heard about funding cuts for the next summer Olympics in 2020 with badminton seeing cuts of up to £2 million and cycling up to £4 million, with archery, fencing, weightlifting and wheelchair rugby all receiving no extra funding at all.

These sports are all expected to perform on the international stage to a high level with an expectation of bringing home more medals than in 2016, yet there will be no money available to coach individual to an international level. But these funding cuts can have their advantages, whereby less money means more pressure to perform well, while techniques may be developed the outcome will always be the same and most schools have a full sports programme where youngster can get involved and new talent is nurtured early on.

However when it comes to talent within theatre the story is very different in schools, drama has already be dropped through EBacc as a compulsory subject in schools so how can new talent be found and be nurtured if the subject is not funded on the curriculum properly with all additional funding for teacher training cut all together? Whatever funding is available to theatres probably won’t be available to nurture talent, and unlike sport the outcome will always be different. Every show needs a different same budget and different techniques need to be applied, with only the fundamentals of creativity remain the same.

Visualising the future of theatre and the arts with funding continuing to be cut, ticket prices rising to a point where only the rich can afford to see the performances. The number of rich people in our society is a percentage that wouldn’t fill all our theatres on a good night.

We must always remember that in a time of trouble, in the world in which we live and the damaged economic climate that we are experiencing, the arts and creative industry play a vital role in today’s communities. They don’t just serve as places of entertainment and education for audiences but more importantly they provide a much needed escape for a couple of hours from the real world, not just for the rich.

Funding, Diversity and New Works

There has been some discussion about proving the use of diversity in the arts to gain to funding from the Arts Council, as well as funding cuts from government, topped with how hard it is to fund new works.

Surely there’s a link between these issues that almost make it a catch 22 situation. Most of the work that is well known has been around for many years and their characters and stories are defined by a certain period in history. In rare cases like the works of Shakespeare directors can try new ways of modernising the perception in an aim to reach a much younger audience but the language and script will always be of Shakespeare’s day.

An example of a well-known work that was written to tackle issues of the day and quite comfortably cover diversity was the published in 1960 and was later adapted to the screen (1962) and stage (1990), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, it dealt so beautifully with racial injustice as well as those of rape and social inequality.

By contrast just 60 years earlier in what became one of the worlds most loved films was first published in 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s first adaptation in 1939 saw producers and directors have an almost all white cast, with the young lead character played by a white girl from Minnesota (Judy Garland). As the comedian Stephen K Amos once said, ‘There were black people in rural Kansas in 1939 they just weren’t allowed on the yellow brick road’

Recently Steven Berkoff said ‘White actors should be allowed to play Othello’. And he is probably right, but to me this suggestion seems a desperate far cry in helping the issues surrounding diversity since Othello was written as a way to show the inequality of black people in the 16th Century. Whilst a white actor could easily play Othello it would mean having the rest of the cast as coloured actors, but we did this would it still seem authentic? As the time and place in which it is set a white men had never experienced the corruption and unfair treatment of a black men.

But diversity is not about what story the play is telling, it’s about those performing as well. In the Stage (28 May 2015) Maria Friedman speaks of older actresses going into directing simply because there isn’t much in the way of roles for them to play as actors. Whilst directors today do their best to accommodate the sexual, gender and colour origination of actors when auditioning, they are still restricted by what is demanded of the script. In well-known productions they can’t just go changing the gender of a character or all of a sudden make them a wheelchair user, because it’s not what the audience expects. But why do they use the well-known material? Simply because it’s lower risk higher chance of gaining the funding needed to stage the production.

I am sure there are lots of writers that have addressed today’s issue, but unless you’re a well known writer then getting funding to get work commissioned is hard. You may be able to get the funding if you have a household name performing in your play, but would funding stretch to cover this cost? But does using well known household names really deliver a solution to the diversity problem as there are still hundreds of very talented working class actors who would be missing out on a opportunity to forward their career in the arts.

So for theatre to experience and show the full length of diversity and the problems that come with it in today’s society new material needs be written and funds made available for it to come to life.

Time’s Up

You may remember at the BAFTAs this year (18 February 2018) most of the females that walked the red carpet were wearing black. This was not because someone had died, but in support of a very important movement that is tackling the issues around equality between men and women.

This movement is called ‘Times Up’, it has been set up by females in the entertainment industry to women everywhere. It aims to empower females to stand up again sexual assault, harassment and equality in the workplace.

Nobody should suffer in silence, everyone should be treated fairly. Some of you may have read the open letter that published in The Observer calling for women to stand up for their rights, it seems ironic that over 100 year after women were given the vote in England that we would still be fighting for their equality in the workplace.

At the beginning of February I touched on the topic of bullying and sexual harassment in the arts industry, but this takes the issue to a whole new level. It is just wonderful to see the arts industry reaching out to the rest of the world.

This campaign is not just about the awareness of the issues of assault and harassment it is being practical, it is raising money for a legal defence fund to support women through cases against those who bring harm to them. Currently in the US the fund stands at $21 million (£15 million). The same is being started in the UK with actress Emma Watson already donating £1 million to the much needed fund.

As the letter in The Observer says, ‘For each woman in the entertainment industry who has spoken out, there are thousands of women whose stories go unheard’

If you would like to read more about the campaign the please visit: https://www.timesupnow.com/

World Book Day 2018

Today is World Book Day which is the celebration of authors, illustrators, books and most importantly reading. It’s the 21st year of this celebration that was designated by UNESCO as a worldwide event which is marked in over 100 countries.

So I thought I would write a little about the history of the books:

Writing has been developed over many year along with materials like paper and other materials, but the art of storytelling has always been part of the human heritage for as long as they have roamed the earth as a way of passing on traditions and methods of living. The recording significant events would have first been through drawings on the walls of caves.

The preservation of stories and instructions would have originated with the use of stone and clay tablets in 3rd millennium BC and were used right up until the 19th century in some parts of the world.

From the first Dynasty the Egyptians had begun to use papyrus to record their information these were books in the form of scrolls where sheets of papyrus were pasted together and were 10 metres or more in length. The books were rolled out horizontally with text written in columns, many were found in tombs with prayers and sacred texts such as the Book of the Dead which was the funeral text for the ancient Egyptians used at beginning of the New Kingdom around 1500BCE

In China writing on wood, shells, bones and silk was practiced long before 2nd Century BC. Paper was invented in China in 1st Century AD with block wood printing used for the Buddhist texts where the scrolls were folded concertina style.

The Codex appeared from as early as 1st Century AD they were an expensive, hand bound and elaborate form of book. They developed and evolved over the centuries until about 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented press printing which marked the entry of the book into the industrial age.

Then what we all know as ebooks hit the commercial scene and seem to be threatening the concept of publishing onto physically paper and have been blamed for the decline in use of libraries and bookshops closing. While shift to the use of electronic devices to read books and magazines has been recent, the actual concept of ebooks was first hatched in 1930 after the first movie with sound was viewed.

But however we chose read books today is the day we should enjoy and celebrate the gift of books, the talent of writers and joy they continue to bring too many.

No doubt there will be many events in all parts of the world to mark the celebrations, go online and find out how you can get involved. For more information on World Book Day you can visit the official site at: http://www.worldbookday.com/