Opinion: save our theatre spaces

I love the theatre, past and present, in all forms, now and forever.

I’ve been going since I was a child, first to the Coliseum and Grange Arts Centre in Oldham, then to Manchester’s Palace and Opera House, Library, Royal Exchange, Contact, and RNCM, then while living in Yorkshire to the theatres of Leeds (Grand, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Civic), Bradford Sheffield, Huddersfield, Ilkley, Harrogate and York. I holidayed far too many times in Blackpool not to miss the delights of shows on the Pier.

I’ve travelled to Nottingham to see Ian McKellen as Richard III, to Liverpool to see Antony Sher as Cyrano. I spent years planning my week away in Stratford upon Avon so I could see eight productions from the RSC in one go. I made two trips each year to see plays or musicals in the West End, catching Judi Dench, Alec McCowen, and more.

I discovered the National’s musicals and Shakespeare, visited Hammersmith and a few other fringe spots, and when I moved to London I hoovered up the tourist traps like The Mousetrap. I’ve watched plays, musicals, comedy, cabaret, dance, opera and more. I even watched the chapel pantomime each Christmas, being dragged up on stage more than once.

I’ve laughed and cried at the theatre, I’ve been entertained and disturbed, I’ve developed a core of likes (people, companies, shows) that I always go back to, but I also like to be challenged, surprised, and provoked.

And eventually I started reviewing: big shows, medium shows, small shows. Slowly my focus began to change as I found one more small venue, one more hard-working company, one more show which wasn’t a tired revival or a long-runner I’d seen too many times before.

Theatre is in jeopardy in all its forms. Of course the West End, the commercial centre of the UK’s arts in terms of profit, has shouted loudest. The National and the Royal Opera House have joined forces with the RSC to make a bid for public money. Shakespeare’s Globe – a unique outdoor venue complimented by a candlelit second space – is in trouble.

But while these behemoths tower over their smaller neighbours (the Soho and the Boulevard behind the glitz of Shaftesbury Avenue; Jermyn Street off Piccadilly Circus; the Union, Vaults, and Waterloo East either side of “the Vics”; the Tristan Bates and Donmar at Seven Dials), they are no more or less precious.

I posed a question on Twitter about whether the long-running shows of the West End would be missed. There are 38 theatres in Theatreland of which more than a third have shows that have run longer than five years. Ultimately, these venues are lost to new or revived work.

I appreciate these bring a lot of money into the economy and that they employ a lot of people. I don’t deny that people still want to see the shows but how many have toured outside the capital? How many are, and I say this with a bit of sadness, a shadow of their former selves?

I just wonder how the freshness I see across the fringe and off-West End spaces can get a foothold in this prime set of venues? The announced closure of Trafalgar Studio 2 to return that space to one house is sad news indeed for small-scale shows looking to transfer; for many even that venue was beyond financial possibility.

If the pandemic crisis means tough decisions have to be made to save the arts across the board, I understand that. But let it not be just a question of how much a piece of art generates in profit, or let that commercial model’s profit be shared in such a way that regions benefit, that fringe spaces have some scope to grow, that education programmes, training programmes, and experimental innovation is valued.

I don’t agree that the industry is necessarily saturated by productions nobody wants to see. I believe each space has its traditional audience, and many theatres and companies are not widely known to those who see “theatre” as The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, and Hamilton.

Those visiting the Victoria Palace could always take a detour to the mischievously named Other Palace where the downstairs studio has staged numerous scratch performances and showcases for new musicals. Those who make it as far as King’s Cross have the New Diorama or Camden’s People’s Theatre to discover, dance shows at The Place, concerts at the Shaw.

Some smaller theatres have banded together to present an open letter to self-employed and freelance theatre and performance makers to ask for support for the 70% of people in the industry who can be defined this way, with signatories including the Almeida in Islington, the Bush in Shepherd’s Bush, the Gate in Notting Hill, the Curve in Leicester, the Cockpit in Marylebone, the Yard in Hackney Wick.

The London pub theatre scene, where 30-90 people at most see each show, but where vibrant comedy, musical and dramatic creations flourish, are also working together. These are far from new spaces, and their budgets are meagre, their margins tiny. But I wouldn’t like to see their fringe festival in Camden and Clapham disappear.

Libraries, churches, saunas, railway arches, even buses and crates, have become places where people come together to create work, share it, experience it. Whether in a place like this, or in the gods of a Victorian theatre rich in heritage and history, it is magical to be in the dark sharing that moment.

All theatre is precious, whether commercial, community or collective. I would love to see a model in which the top of the industry, the star-led, multi-million pound fraction of the UK theatre scene, supports the rest, through collaboration, opportunity (one actor on Twitter remarked that “the lift should be sent back down”, which seemed an apt way to describe it).

Streaming shows over the past few weeks has given unprecedented opportunity to many outlets to share or create work and shout “here I am”. Watching at home you can travel round the world if you wish, and if you want to venture further than NT Live, there are many opportunities to do so.

But how to keep that visibility going? How to “save everything, then choose”? The government stance appears to be that the arts is on its own and needs to prove its worth. I think, and hope, it has over many years of serving towns, topics and communities. I want to see female-led theatre, black theatre, queer theatre, inclusive theatre, immersive theatre, and all its forms survive.

It has to. It must do. Please help donate to any and every space that is important to you if you are able to do so. If you can’t spare a donation, then keep talking, sharing, celebrating, supporting. Keep those conversations going. Talk across those barriers between different kinds of space and focus. Support each other and save each other.