I know better than to waste my time arguing with lazy clickbait articles. I do. It’s just… sometimes I can’t resist.
The piece of lazy clickbait in question is this article in The Telegraph, courtesy of Douglas McPherson. He is a theatre critic. In the theatre he toils not, neither does he spin, as someone once said. Yet he has a great deal to say about funding – specifically, that it should not come from the state.
He does not advocate an American-style system where the arts are dependent on philanthropy, you understand. He thinks that letting artists keep more of the money they make through tax breaks is the answer. Which is a lovely idea, except he doesn’t address the question of where the earnings of which they are to keep more should come from. Presumably they are supposed to come from the infallible commercial model, which McPherson believes is the key to producing great work.
In twenty years of reviewing, McPherson cannot recall a single subsidised show that he considered good. Not one. I thought I might have a look through his old reviews and find out whether this assertion was reflected in his critiques of subsidised and commercial productions. Unfortunately, for someone who boasts two decades of regular contributions to The Stage, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, his reviews are remarkably hard to find. I’ve turned up his circus blog, several circus-related articles (mostly arguing in favour of live animals in circus acts), his romance writing alter ego… but in terms of reviews, I can only find references to the ones he wrote for What’s On, which aren’t archived online, and a couple of music reviews for The Telegraph. So I suppose we’ll just have to trust him on this one. Not a single good subsidised show in all that time. How hard that must have been for him, considering how much subsidised work a critic sees.
Commercial theatre, on the other hand, has filled McPherson’s days with joy. Commercial work is “new, vibrant, exciting and creative” – and entirely divorced from state subsidy. What utter nonsense this is. Subsidised and commercial theatre are not two discrete entities. They overlap. What happens in one influences the other.
Let’s have an example. David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers’ production of Calendar Girls was a massive financial success. (Let’s not argue about whether it was an artistic success or simply a way to cash in on the film’s success – let’s just assume for the moment that McPherson is correct and that it was, like other commercial work, new, vibrant, exciting and creative.) It toured from 2009 – 2012, with advance ticket sales of more than £1.7 million. It became the UK’s most successful touring play and grossed over £35 million. Amateur performance rights are now available so the play continues to generate income even when there isn’t a production on tour.
A triumph for commercial theatre, right? But of course, the story of that wildly successful tour doesn’t begin with Pugh and Rogers. The writer, Tim Firth, cut his teeth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a subsidised house. His first major success, Neville’s Island, was commissioned by the SJT. More than half of the women featured in the original cast spent their early years honing their craft in subsidised rep, national companies and the RSC. The theatre at which Calendar Girls first opened was Chichester Festival Theatre, also a subsidised house. Can it really be argued that this commercial success existed “without any need for government help”?
McPherson’s argument that subsidised theatre does not concentrate on “producing work the public might actually want to see” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has The Woman in Black, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, run for quarter of a century because no-one wanted to see it? Or The Mousetrap, now 63 years old, which came to the West End after opening at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham? Do more recent shows like War Horse (National Theatre) and Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland) tour the world without any demand for tickets? Or would McPherson suggest that people are somehow being coerced into purchasing tickets, then turning up out of politeness when really they would rather be anywhere else?
It’s all very well to say that if these shows are so successful, they should be self-sustaining. But that misunderstands the nature of theatre. Yes, some shows can become successful enough to meet the immense costs involved in putting them on. But it’s unrealistic to expect that every show will achieve this. There has to be some middle ground between the smash hits and the complete flops, because that’s where development happens.
The artists who created Black Watch and War Horse had full careers behind them. Those shows are the results of years spent developing craft and technique in subsidised theatres. Would they ever have existed, let alone become the massive hits that they were, without John Tiffany and Marianne Elliott being nurtured by venues like the Traverse or the Royal Exchange? Theatremakers don’t approach each show in isolation. Every new project benefits from all your previous experience. All the things you’ve learned on previous shows, every success and failure you’ve ever had – they all inform the work you do. The failures are as important a part of a theatremaker’s development as the successes, and it is subsidised theatre, not commercial, that offers greater freedom to fail. This is not a question of “subsidising the mediocre” – which I would agree we ought not to do – but of allowing artistic risks to be taken. I don’t know which commercial work he’s been seeing, but it’s not generally known for its risk-taking.
Of course McPherson has thought of this, and he has an ingenious solution – “Companies can create new or experimental work in fringe venues on a profit-share basis without funding.” I would have hoped that someone claiming twenty years’ experience of writing about theatre would be more knowledgeable about the many, many problems that plague this model. Alas, it appears he is not.
Profit-share is a euphemism for “unpaid”. We all know this – well, at least those of us who actually make theatre know it. Very, very occasionally you’ll get something out of it, but the most likely outcome is that your fringe show will make no profit. This is because fringe venues cost money, and rehearsal venues cost money, and set, props and costumes cost money, and hiring a tech costs money, and hiring in extra lights to supplement the venue’s extremely basic rig costs money, and PR costs money, and insurance costs money, and PRS licenses cost money.
All of these costs add up. You’re looking at thousands of pounds to stage your show, even without paying people. Even if you rehearse in someone’s living room and have no set and source all your costumes from your own wardrobe, even if you can get a technician to give you a freebie, even if you reduce your costs to nothing but the venue, it’s still expensive. You are still unlikely to recoup your costs from ticket sales alone, because the chances are that your completely unheard-of show won’t play to packed houses from the very start. The chances are that you won’t play to packed houses at all, unless you get well-timed stellar reviews and/or exceptionally good word of mouth.
Getting good reviews on the fringe isn’t simply a matter of doing a good play, of course. Several London publications won’t review fringe shows unless they do a three week run, so if you can only afford, say, a week’s try-out run at the White Bear then tough luck. If you’re in an outlying venue there will be critics who just won’t travel. I’ve seen several excellent shows at the Rosemary Branch, for example, but trying to drag reviewers to a venue that doesn’t have a tube station within 10 minutes’ walk can be blood from a stone. Aim for a more central/better connected venue and you might find it easier to attract critics, but you’ll also pay more, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get reviewed early enough in your run for a five star rating to bring in enough punters to cover your costs – let alone make that fabled profit that you were going to share.
So if profit-share means unpaid, who can afford to do it? For a little while, it’s possible to work unpaid while supporting yourself with one or more day jobs and, usually, a growing mountain of debt. It’s a fast route to burn-out, but it can be done for a bit. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive spouse or family or trust fund, you can do it indefinitely. Perhaps Douglas McPherson doesn’t consider it a problem that unpaid work turns fringe theatre into the playground of the affluent. I, on the other hand, do. Theatre benefits from a diverse range of influences, and that’s much easier to achieve if it’s possible for people from all walks of life to make it their career rather than leaving it to be a hobby for the wealthy.
Quite apart from practical considerations about whether it’s even possible to pay people making theatre on the fringe, there’s the question of why we ought to. Theatre is beneficial to the UK’s economy, bringing in an estimated £2 for every £1 of subsidy. That’s not all direct income through ticket sales – people having a night at the theatre also buy dinner, buy drinks, take buses and trains and taxis, pay to park their cars nearby, pay for hotel rooms if they’ve travelled for the sake of seeing the show. There’s so much more to it than just tickets. But if we treat early career and experimental work as mere dilettantism, the standard of the work made will plummet and the public’s willingness to pay to see theatre will follow.
However, the economic argument for theatre is not the only one, nor is it the most important. We ought to value theatre because, quite simply, culture is important. Culture enhances our lives, gives us the capacity and tools for self-reflection as individuals and as a society, encourages empathy, stretches us intellectually, educates us emotionally, challenges us, baffles us and entertains us. It’s how we make more of ourselves. This isn’t just about the people who practice professionally – subsidising the arts is about recognising the importance of culture. It’s about making it available to those who are able to engage with it directly, and letting its influence spread through commercial work with a wider reach so that it affects those who can’t or won’t engage with it directly. To think only in terms of direct engagement is reductive and simplistic.
It’s true that there are flaws in the way that arts funding is dealt with across the UK. There are plenty. But what Douglas McPherson suggests is not the answer. It’s the prating of an armchair artist, and ought to be treated as such.