Alan Ayckbourn's cherished Scarborough theatre fights for survival

Funding cuts threaten the seaside home of work by the celebrated British playwright

Threats to the future of a cherished theatre in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, a home of Alan Ayckbourn's work for the past 40 years, have prompted leading writers, politicians and actors to speak out in defence of what they say is a national cultural treasure.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre, which was run by Ayckbourn from 1972 to 2009 and is still used to premiere his work, along with the plays of new writers, is this weekend one of many arts organisations facing financial crisis as staff wait to hear of funding cuts to be announced by the Arts Council of England.

North Yorkshire County Council has already cut the venue's grant by 84% and further cuts from England's central arts funding body expected to be announced on Wednesday could stop the current programme in its tracks, according to Chris Monks, the artistic director who took over from Ayckbourn.

Sir Alan, one of the country's most celebrated playwrights, is recovering from a hip operation and is believed to be deeply unhappy about the cuts.

"This unique venue not only brings huge amounts of money into the local economy, it enriches the cultural lives of people in Scarborough and beyond… regionally, nationally and internationally," said Fiona Evans, a writer whose play, The Price of Everything, premiered at Scarborough in November, while an award-winning earlier work, Scarborough, transferred to London's Royal Court Theatre.

Her alarm was echoed by Tim Firth, screenwriter of Calendar Girls, who started his career at Scarborough. He said that, although his work was often rejected by theatres in London at the start of his career, the Stephen Joseph had no such qualms. "They seemed to recognise that young people could write about anything, even about old people of 40, as long as they won an audience," he said. "In Scarborough, any new writing had to stand its corner against the Ayckbourn and assorted classics in a summer season, which was hellishly frightening but, for me, invaluable."

Actor Samuel West, former artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, added his voice to the criticism. "Theatre is not just for the rich and subsidy keeps tickets cheap. Quite aside from the huge financial return the country gets for any money invested, the arts are what make us civilised," he said. "Sitting alongside people in a theatre who may be poor or may be rich is a great democratic institution."

The Stephen Joseph, which produces about 10 plays a year and was one of the first to champion theatre-in-the-round, has been the launch-pad for numerous stage and screen writers over the years such as Evans, Torben Betts and Robert Shearman. The West End hit Woman in Black premiered there in 1987.

Monks emphasised the effect that cuts had already had on the theatre, which received £63,000 from the county council last year but is getting only £10,000 for the next. It has cancelled its summer tour and scaled back its community work, he said. "As a direct result of the cut, residents of North Yorkshire will have less access to the arts and culture. Last year 4,000 children participated in educational projects. We will not be able to sustain this level of activity without finding support from elsewhere."

This weekend shadow culture minister Ivan Lewis warns that the map of Britain will be punctured by cultural black holes if the Arts Council of England fails to address the damage done by local government cuts. In a letter to the chair of the council, Liz Forgan, he accuses Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, of cutting the Arts Council's budget by 30% "in a shabby attempt to hide from responsibility for the cumulative impact" of other cuts.

"It is important there is total transparency about how the cuts will impact, who and where they will hit the hardest and their combined effect with local council, Development Agency and education cuts. They threaten both our global cultural excellence and the tremendous advances in access to the arts over the past decade," writes Lewis.

The Department for Culture Media and Sport said ministers had "negotiated a remarkably good national settlement for the arts given the economic conditions, limiting the cut to the Arts Council's overall budget to around 11%".


Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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