TAITMAIL Beauty Queens and Banshees – the future of theatre

By Patrick Kelly

To the delightful Theatre by the Lake in Keswick to see a spirited production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. A healthy-looking house enjoyed the show despite a typical Lake District wet and windy October evening.

So good news for what used to be so condescendingly described as “provincial” theatre in difficult times? Not entirely.

Regional theatres are suffering from two big problems. One is the post pandemic reluctance of theatregoers to return in the numbers that they used to. Audiences are down all over the country as many theatregoers, particularly older ones, “got out of the habit” of popping along to their local theatre to see what’s on.

Secondly, the cost-of-living crisis is proving to be a double whammy Not only have theatres’ costs shot up – as the price of food, supplies and of course energy increases – they are unable to recoup those costs by whacking up their own prices without losing customers.

“It’s been really challenging” says Liz Stevenson, artistic director of Theatre by the Lake. “Audiences have been slow to return – we are not an exception.”

One way of dealing with the problem has been to drop the theatre’s time-honoured commitment to traditional repertory working, putting on six plays at a time. Instead, single plays are given a run on their own, which saves resources. That’s a big break for the Keswick team  as the theatre’s origins lie in what was probably the last bastion of rep theatre - Century Theatre’s famous travelling Blue Box. The Blue Box, a Heath Robinson structure of specially adapted containers, spent nearly three decades being hauled through the English countryside to bring mainly rural audiences the experience of live theatre in a purpose-built setting.

In 1984, the travelling show finally came to a halt in the lakeside setting of Keswick, it being decided that the structure could no longer safely complete another journey without a massively expensive overhaul. The Century team settled down in the town and locals got to love their makeshift theatre. But that did not stop them embarking on a concerted and lengthy campaign to build a permanent theatre on the Blue Box site, which had by that time settled in a car park on the shores of the beautiful Derwentwater. After a mighty fundraising effort and the unstinting support of Judi Dench and her late husband Michael Williams, lottery funding, Arts Council backing and local authority support finally led to the creation of the Theatre by the Lake (pictured), which opened in 1999.

Fast forward 20 years and we are in a different era. How different is hard to tell. There were lots of predictions about what post-Covid theatre would look like, with talk about streaming, virtual reality, audio visual programming, new types of seating arrangements and redesigned stages. But the everyday reality in 2022, the first year since 2019 that theatre has been able to operate in anything like a normal environment, seems far removed from those early visions of a new and improved theatre world.

Two reports encapsulate this new reality. The first is from the House of Commons DCMS committee which has come up with a series of suggestions for supporting the arts sector generally.

Targeted support, through VAT or business rate relief to cultural, sporting and media organisations is needed urgently, it says, to prevent ‘exacerbating long-term scarring’ of those already hit hard by Covid-19 https://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/2953-existential-threat-to-local-culture-mps-warn-dcms.

The Committee also argues for a new model of funding to ensure grassroots organisations do not miss out in areas where there are national cultural institutions, which often receive the most significant levels of public cash. Those major institutions should also have a duty to open themselves up to audiences across the country and support grassroots organisations, while the government should better incentivise private investment.

Skills shortages in the creative sector should be tackled too - by supporting schools that provide vocational, industry-backed qualifications while funding bodies should press the industry to improve working practices and conditions.

“With spiralling energy bills exacerbating the scars inflicted by the pandemic, the government must come forward with targeted support to ensure local organisations are not hit by a wave of closures at a time when art and culture is more important than ever in providing people with an escape from the harsh realities of the cost-of-living crisis” said DCMS committee chair Julian Knight.

The second report comes from a research team at the University of Essex which looks at the role of theatres in their community post pandemic. Theatres Beyond the Stage is based on interviews and survey responses from over 2,000 theatregoers in the East of England, and paints a picture of the subtleties around “lost audiences” and how to tempt them back.

A section of those who identified as pre-Covid regular theatregoers are not returning because of health concerns, financial constraints and, indeed, “falling out of the habit”.

One third are uncertain even as to when or whether they would return. An equal number are somewhat or very unlikely to see two productions in the next six months.

However, the study also shows loyal audience members have been supportive. They link their visits to their theatre with their sense of identity to their local community, evidencing theatres’ role in rebuilding communities.

The researchers also provide evidence of new audiences emerging as a result of regional theatres’ efforts and of those wanting to try a new experience and support arts organisations.

Professor Rosemary Klich, who led the research, said that programming would have the biggest role to play in bringing audiences back. But she added, “For many, it is simply about the disruption of the pandemic impacting their desire to return and a feeling that they are yet to rediscover this cultural and social aspect of their lives. Our findings will support theatres in finding new and innovative ways to re-engage these audiences”.

In Colchester Mercury Theatre’s Steve Mannix responded to the report with: “We want to signal to audiences that theatres in the region are still the welcoming and friendly spaces that they’ve always been, and we’re working even harder to create fantastic experiences.”

It’s a lesson already taken to heart at Keswick where Liz Stevenson is working out ways of increasing audiences by linking up with her local cinema, which just happens to be showing Martin McDonagh’s latest work, the hit film, The Banshees of Inisherin. “We are offering joint tickets for the two shows” she says, pointing out that McDonough, who is now Hollywood box office gold, started his career with a tiny local theatre – as did his partner Phoebe Waller Bridge.

Imagination and tenacity may not be enough to get regional theatre through the next couple of lean years, but it will help.

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