Local theatre – a tale of survival against the odds

Theatre funding is in freefall, causing many venues and companies to close, but Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Croydon are bucking this national trend

Theatres all over the UK are closing their curtains for a final time in what the media have referred to as a “national emergency” for the arts sector. But though the national picture is bleak, locally the theatre scene is not taking its final bow any time soon.

Most theatres depend on a mixed source of income: some public subsidy, some funding from trusts or donations, and earned income through box office sales. But overall, the Arts Council of England (ACE) represents the most significant source of funding for theatres and theatre companies based in London. According to the most recent data, the overall income theatres receive from ACE has decreased by almost 20 per cent in the past three years.

In response to complaints about the funding cuts, ACE chief executive Darren Henley tried to reassure the theatre community by focusing on the benefits of the change to the funding regime. During his speech at The Stage’s Future of Theatre conference, 2023, he said: “If we reduce the overall picture to focus only on a few organisations… then there’s a danger that our perspective becomes too narrow and too short term, focusing on individual elements, but failing to see the big picture.

“We’re here for audiences,” he added. “Because audiences demand work they can access, and they demand work of the highest quality.”

The newest ACE funding plan for 2023-26 consists of investing almost £95m per year in the theatre sector across the UK, with the intent of prioritising theatres outside the capital. However, despite this, the Eastlondonlines boroughs have not done badly. Almost £25m has been allocated to London and of the 59 theatres and theatre companies (also known as National Portfolio Organisations, or NPOs) that were selected to receive funding in the capital, more than one in three (23 in total) are based in the ELL area. Indeed, with over £6m of ACE funding promised, the ELL area is getting around a quarter of the total London budget.

Overall, Lambeth is the London borough receiving the most money and that is because ACE has always been committed to funding the National Theatre – unsurprisingly, perhaps – which gets over half of the budget (£16m), despite being cut back by 5 per cent in last year.

After Lambeth, comes Southwark, but Hackney comes next in third place with almost £2.5m awarded to its eight theatres and theatre companies. Among these is Graeae Theatre Company, which received the most money of any single theatre company in all the ELL areas (almost £800,000) thanks to its work towards creating “theatrical excellence through the vision and practice of Deaf, disabled, and neurodiverse artists.”

For the purpose of this project, the money obtained by the National Theatre is being omitted because this exclusion allows for a more nuanced view of the funding situation in the ELL area.

Tower Hamlets also received a generous amount of money (almost £2m) for another eight recipients, including contemporary circus company Upswing Aerial and imagination-driven Punchdrunk Entertainment Company.

Half Moon presents Half Moon Hot Orange. Pic: Stephen Russell

Half Moon Theatre, for instance, focuses on youth development and is making theatre accessible in many ways, including through subscription and on demand streaming services.

On the other hand, Croydon – recently at its peak as London Borough of Culture 2023 – obtained around £1m to split among three theatres: Talawa Theatre Company, Zoo Co Theatre, and Boundless Theatre.

Lewisham was awarded the least amount of money (around £800,000), split between four theatres, two of which are focused on celebrating plays and performers of South-Asian descent (Kali Theatre Company and New Earth Theatre Company).

As the theatre landscape becomes more and more fragile and unpredictable, ELL looked into what the common traits among theatres receiving funding in our area were, and was able to pinpoint some characteristics that ACE seems to be searching for in theatres.

“The future of theatre and the performing arts lies in a willingness to embrace the new, the bold and the innovative. That is your superpower,” said Henley.

The word cloud below illustrates this. It shows the most common words by repetition in the mission statements of all the 23 ELL theatres that made the cut for the 2023-26 funding plan, after the omission of non-relevant words, such as articles or prepositions, as well as words that one might expect in all of the mission statements, such as “theatre” or “artist”.

The most striking overarching idea is identified by words such as “new” (24 mentions) and “diverse” (20 mentions). ACE seems to prioritise those companies that can bring a fresh outlook to the theatre world with a focus on youth (“young”, 24 mentions). That naturally sparks a conversation about “access” (18) and “inclusion” (10) as almost all theatres receiving funding from ACE in the ELL area focus on some sort of minoritised or marginalised group.

There is a lot of care to be inclusive towards people with disabilities (“disabled” features 22 times) to ensure ELL’s theatre scene represents all of the community. This is the case with Extant Theatre, where its ACE funding under Hackney provides a platform for visually impaired artists and audiences.

“When a community feels like a piece of theatre is investing in their community and cares about their community, then they’ll invest back,” says Extant’s trainee artistic director Ben Wilson. “The stories that seem to be popular at the moment are the ones that feel like they care about the communities and are representative of communities. When people feel that it’s genuine, and it’s real, then people get behind it and back it.”

Another example of the celebration of diversity and minorities comes with New Earth Theatre in Lewisham, which takes pride in representing British East and South East Asian artists and audiences. “I think the funders, trusts and foundations are looking to go, ‘Who have we been funding in the past and who haven’t we been funding?’,” says New Earth Theatre’s outgoing artistic director Kumiko Mendl. “So that’s being good in terms of being invited to put applications in. You know they want to support the work we’re doing and that’s a shift.

“I think it’s a good time and we should ride the wave. Things aren’t easy [for theatre], but for East and South East Asians, it’s a moment,” She adds. “Our community’s ready – we’re ready to go.”

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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