The Isle is Full of Noises: theatre in England today

Posted By Simon Mellor on 20 October 2016

In light of the new Analysis of Theatre in England report, Simon Mellor, our Executive Director of Arts and Culture, blogs about how the theatre landscape is evolving in the digital age

When I left the Lyric Hammersmith in 2007, I remember saying to someone that I felt that I knew less then about why people went to the theatre than I did 10 years earlier when I first started working there. Which is another way of saying that theatre is a constantly evolving art form. Changing artists’ tastes and interests result in an evolving audience appetite.

Taking information and inspiration as much from social media as the traditional media, today’s theatre audiences seem more ready than ever to experiment and move beyond the tried and trusted. While this unpredictability may make the job of today’s theatre manager something of nightmare, it gives contemporary theatre a dynamism that, when it is working at its best, ensures new voices find their audiences and come to the fore.

Performer onstage with projection
'Golem', created by 1927. Photo © Bernhard Mueller

It’s important that the Arts Council keeps an eye on whether the theatre ecology in this country is ‘working at its best’ and whether there are steps that we should take to strengthen that ecology. We have been keen to understand more about how the range of funding challenges now faced by many of our theatres and theatre companies might be interplaying with the changing nature of the art form - and particularly what impact screenings of live theatre to cinemas and arts buildings might be having on the industry sector and its audiences. We also wanted to learn more about what was happening to career progression routes in the industry.

Today we publish an analysis of the current theatre landscape we commissioned from BOP and Graham Devlin.  Last week, we published a report jointly commissioned with UK Theatre and SOLT on the impact of ‘live to digital’ in the theatre sector. We have also published our response to those two reports, including a set of outline proposals that we will develop further over the next 12 months.

Theatre in England today

We know that the theatre industry in this country is a complicated ecology that connects commercial, not for profit and amateur theatre making. While data on the  industry as a whole is hard to come by, it is clear that theatre in this country is  deeply interconnected, with the health of each part intimately connected to that of the others.

theatre has always evolved – both aesthetically and financially

In relation to audiences and business models, the work we have commissioned indicates that the picture is largely positive, especially when it comes to our theatre NPOs. Ticket sales for the 156 theatre NPOs we looked at rose from 9.1m in 2010/11 to 13.2m in in 2014/5. Earned income rose from £189m to £284m over the same period and has helped offset the decline in public funding from the Arts Council and local government.

We have also seen the evolution of the ‘producing model’, with many of our building based theatres now drawing from a range of art forms to present mixed programmes of produced, commissioned and presented work. We are also witnessing a growing civic role for many of our theatres, as they engage in a range of national and local initiatives that extend way beyond the work presented on our stages.

The Arts Council welcomes both of these developments and will continue to encourage a greater collaboration and sharing of resources across its funded theatre organisations.

boxer stands onstage in theatre performance
The Royale, directed by Madani Younis. Photo © Helen Murray

The reports also point to a number of challenges that the Arts Council and the theatre industry will need to work together to address, including the capacity and appetite for risk taking, especially outside London, and a mismatch between supply and demand in relation to mid-scale touring. There is also the critical issue of the fact that the leadership of the publically funded theatre sector remains unrepresentative of the communities that it serves. We believe this is likely to be impacting on talent development pathways, the profile of the wider theatre workforce and, ultimately, on the makeup of audiences.

These problems are not unique to theatre and the Arts Council will focus its energy and resources during 2018-22 to work with the sector to bring about long-term, permanent change. The proposals we are publishing today are the first steps in trying to address these issues and build on recent Arts Council initiatives such as the Creative Case for Diversity and recent strategic fund awards through our Unlimited, Elevate and Change Makers programmes.

live and ‘live to digital’ theatre can comfortably and creatively co-exist

Live to Digital

As I said earlier, theatre has always evolved – both aesthetically and financially. The disruptive impact of digital technology is accelerating that change. It is already transforming the way that many audiences are discovering and experiencing theatre and the way that contemporary theatre makers are telling their stories. The evidence from the Live to Digital report is clear. The growth of screenings is neither taking audiences away from live theatre nor leading to a decline in bookings for touring theatre companies.

Just as the advent of live football on TV has led, contrary to the dire warnings, to a growth in attendance in league grounds, so I remain confident that live and ‘live to digital’ theatre can comfortably and creatively co-exist. Our collective job now is to work together to build audiences for both – and to embrace new technology and use it to develop the art form and its audiences.

Performer onstage with digital screen
Gecko Theatre: Missing. Photo © Richard Haughton, Gecko Theatre

Looking ahead

These are deeply uncertain times and theatres are not immune from that uncertainty. There are particular challenges outside London where I fear we see more local authority funding cuts. We will need resolute, skilled and creative leadership in our theatres if we are to rise to those challenges.

Thankfully there is no evidence that the theatre-going impulse has become diminished; we have not lost our appetite for gathering in darkened rooms – whether real or virtual - to listen to stories that cast new light on the human condition.  Or to quote Tenessee Williams, “The crying, almost screaming, need of a great worldwide human effort to know ourselves and each other a great deal better…” remains as true today as it has ever been. Because of that I believe we can travel together in hope rather than fear.

Young audience member engages with theatre
Dusk by Fevered Sleep. Image © Matthew Andrews / Fevered Sleep

Find out more                                                                                   

Read the full report and our response

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