UK's regional theatre at risk amid funding cuts, say directors

A year after Liverpool Everyman’s rep company collapsed, questions remain over local theatre’s future

The future of theatre in some of the UK’s biggest cities remains under threat, regional artistic directors have warned, amid funding cuts and an ongoing search for sustainable business models.

A year on from the collapse of Liverpool Everyman’s repertory company, the Guardian spoke to the artistic director of that theatre, as well as those at Leeds Playhouse and Manchester Royal Exchange, all of whom are facing the same challenge: what does a contemporary, local theatre look like in 2019?

Gemma Bodinetz, the artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse theatres, attempted to answer that question with a bold, experimental rep company that harks back to the 70s – when Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy and Julie Walters all came through the Liverpool system.

The rep model establishes an in-house acting team, who are embedded in a place and produce bespoke theatre. Established in 2016, it was the first rep company at the Everyman in 25 years, and it almost brought the organisation to its knees.

After a successful first season, which won an award for innovation, the decision was taken to “pause” the rep programme in late November 2018. That hiatus would become permanent. Less than a month later, the Everyman announced it was pulling out of the Arts Council’s national portfolio (NPO) for funding – a huge step for a theatre of the Everyman’s stature and one that was taken because the strain the rep model had put on its finances meant it would not reach obligatory fiscal targets. Then high-profile board members – David Morrissey and Michael Mansfield QC – left. In September, the executive director, Deborah Aydon, who had been in post for 15 years, stepped down as well.

It was an extraordinary chain of events, especially at a theatre that three years earlier had won the Stirling prize for its revered £28m new home, but also had a proud tradition of rep theatre. “We won the award for innovation [after the first season],” says Bodinetz. “I remember at the time, being so proud of that. But I realise now – with all honesty – that I hadn’t quite understood what a massive thing we were doing.”

Gemma Bodinetz, the artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman.
Gemma Bodinetz, the artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian

Bodinetz and current the Everyman chief executive, Fiona Gibson, say the problems with the rep theatre stemmed from not understanding the cost – both financial and in terms of time – that the company would demand. Although they don’t regret it. “I think if money had been a little bit more generous, and we’d given it five years, it would have been a massive success,” says Bodenitz.

The rep company wasn’t just seen as a misstep for the Everyman, but as an existential crisis for local theatre at large. If the Everyman – a theatre that was one of the most respected in Europe, with an award-winning artistic director and a Stirling prize-winning facility – could not make this model work, what hope for the rest?

One editorial asked whether the Everyman was “the canary in the coal mine for regional theatre”. The situation was more dire because it was happening during a period that was the most testing since the end of the 80s, when Margaret Thatcher’s government slashed arts budgets and used the example of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work as being the type of theatre that could pay for itself and therefore warranted a place on British stages.

Nearly £400m has been cut from annual local authority spending on culture and the arts since 2010, according to research by the County Councils Network. The Arts Council budget, meanwhile, has been reduced by 30% since 2010. In 2015, an Arts Council report showed a 17% drop in cultural spending by local councils since austerity began. Bodenitz praises the local council and Arts Council support, but in Liverpool, where there’s been a £816 per head fall in day-to-day public spending since 2010, there’s an inevitable knock-on effect. “It is hard,” says Gibson. “Because people’s ‘leisure pound’, if I can call it that, could go on so many things. So it’s about making sure that what we do offer what they really want to see.”

There’s a substantial funding gap between London theatres and those outside of the capital. Since 2010/11 the Liverpool Everyman has received £30,260,493 from the Arts Council, the Leeds Playhouse has been awarded £22,417,718 and Manchester Royal Exchange – the only one of three to not have a huge capital investment project in that period – £22,058,556. Compared to the National Theatre, which between 2018 and 2022 alone will receive £66,800,000, the disparity is clear.

Tessa Parr and Darren Kuppan in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse.
Tessa Parr and Darren Kuppan in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Photograph: David Lindsay

At the Leeds Playhouse, artistic director James Brining paid close attention to what was happening further down the M62. A former director of the Dundee Rep company, he wanted Liverpool’s gamble to pay off. But the Leeds United fan, who would read TS Eliot and Jane Austen on the Elland Road terraces, felt that it was a case of great idea, but wrong place and time. “In an ideal world where we have more money, then you’d have a small permanent company that you might do a show with, and they’d go into schools and do work in communities,” says Brining, who has been at Leeds Playhouse for seven years. “It’s a really wonderful way of working, but in the current climate of British theatre it’s a really difficult thing to pull off.”

The Leeds Playhouse has just finished its own multimillion pound makeover. A £15.8m facelift of its city centre building has been completed and offers a more welcoming appearance to the old West Yorkshire Playhouse location. For Brining, success at the new-look Leeds Playhouse will be measured on more than getting bums on seats. “We see mission as so much more than what is on our stages,” he says. “There’s a civic function, which might sound like an old-fashioned idea or an ancient idea, but that’s where our roots are.”

That function includes outreach programmes with refugees, offering rehearsal space to young theatremakers and hosting weekly events for over-65s. But the Everyman’s Fiona Gibson believes even the best theatres can run into trouble after big building projects, like the one in Leeds. “If you look at many theatres that have had challenges, it’s often on the back of a capital investment programme,” says Gibson, who also worked at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. “You raise all the money for the building, and then it’s hard to get revenue, especially at that time when you’re focused on fundraising for capital.”

Maxine Peake as Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Manchester theatre.
Maxine Peake as Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre. Photograph: Jonathan Keenan/Publicity image

At Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre, two new artistic directors – Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan – don’t have the weight of a new building to deal with, but there is another form of pressure. They have just taken over from Sarah Frankcom, who ran the theatre since 2014, putting on Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, the current Simon Stephens’ production Light Falls, and establishing the Bruntwood prize for playwriting – the biggest award for playwriting in Europe.

“It doesn’t feel like a scary shadow kind of lingering here,” says Shanahan, who moved to Manchester four years ago. “Sarah’s done so much with the organisation and we’re gonna continue that”. Weise, who was an associate artist at the Donmar Warehouse, describes himself as “a blind optimist” but admits that the first two weeks in the role have included some “reality checking” about what is possible.

“I think our board is really excited about seeing what, two very different, slightly unorthodox artists will bring to artistic leadership,” he says. Frankcom’s final season has just been announced, so for Weise and Shanahan, now is a time to plan what their version of the Royal Exchange will look like. “This site is important, and is incredible, and difficult and challenging,” admits Shanahan. “But you’ve got to look out our doors as well. We can’t just be a satellite.”

Theatre profiles

Liverpool Everyman

Gemma Bodinetz, the artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman, is one of the longest-serving theatre figures in the UK – having moved to the city in 2003 after making a name for herself while at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre. Bodinetz says the Stirling prize win in 2014, when the Everyman’s renovated home in the centre of Liverpool beat off competition from the Shard, is still her proudest moment. Her tenure has seen victories on stage as well, including Golda Rosheuvel starring in a production of Othello as an out lesbian, and a critically lauded season during Liverpool’s capital of culture year in 2008. Bodinetz said that as Sir Ian McKellen prepared his one-man show at the Liverpool Playhouse last year, he playfully admonished her for stopping the rep company. “He said: ‘We’re all very disappointed in you, in the theatre world’,” recalls Bodinetz. “‘All our hopes were pinned on your repertory company. It was a brilliant idea. Why did you stop it?’” Bodinetz and Gibson have implemented a two year business plan with an ultimate goal of applying to go back into NPO funding.

Leeds Playhouse

The recently reopened Leeds Playhouse still has a remit of being a producing theatre for the whole of West Yorkshire, despite its name change last year. Its artistic director, James Brining, grew up in the Leeds suburb of Chapel Allerton, and moved back to the city to take over at the Playhouse after a successful stint at Dundee Rep and the Orange Tree in Richmond. A passionate supporter of Leeds United and new writing, it wasn’t a surprise when the new Playhouse opened with Charley Miles’s There Are No Beginnings – a play based on interviews with women who lived through Peter Sutcliffe’s reign of terror in the county. The Playhouse’s new smaller performance space The Bramall Rock Void is seen as a place to test new writing, rather than having to make the immediate jump up to the larger Courtyard or main Quarry space, which seats 750. Leeds Playhouse’s refurbishment was commissioned for four reasons: to make it more accessible, more sustainable, create the Bramall Rock Void, and generate more income from new bars and cafes. It’s the first major work done on the site since 1990, and its completion comes before the Playhouse celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020.

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Manchester has a busy theatre scene with Contact, Home, Palace Theatre, The Lowry in Salford, Oldham Coliseum Theatre and the Bolton Octagon all on the Royal Exchange’s doorstep. It receives the highest amount of Arts Council funding for any theatre outside of London, and is situated in a building that was once the world’s largest cotton exchange. Outgoing artistic director Sarah Frankcom said Weise and Shanahan – who pitched for the role together – are “exceptional artists” who make “visceral and transformative theatre”. Shanahan has experience of working at the Exchange, having staged Maxine Peake’s drama Queens of the Coal Age last year. Weise, meanwhile, is best known for directing Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s debut about a Jamaican funeral wake, and The Mountaintop – a play about Martin Luther King that played at the Young Vic. The pair successfully got the role after a pitch that involved them discussing their unusual routes into theatre. Weise told the board story of how he walked into a theatre in London to use the toilet on the way home from school and ended up staying. Weise says that part of the challenge for them is to make the Royal Exchange seem more accessible and prone to happy accidents, like his. “When you invite people into your house there might be some rules,” he says. “You might have to take off your shoes so you don’t get the carpet. But it’s also about the hospitality that you bring as well.”


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pop-up theatre to tour disadvantaged areas of Greater Manchester
The Den will involve local communities of areas such as Cheetham Hill and Tameside

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

20, Jun, 2019 @3:02 PM

Article image
Manchester's Royal Exchange theatre names joint artistic directors
Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan unite to ‘make work with and for’ the city’s people

Chris Wiegand

08, Jul, 2019 @11:11 AM

Article image
UK's regional light rail services at risk from coronavirus outbreak
Northern cities’ networks need urgent help from the Treasury to cope with collapse in fares

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

20, Apr, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Jarvis Cocker to compose music for Manchester Royal Exchange's new season
Cocker to collaborate on new Simon Stephens play, while Lucy Ellinson to play Macbeth and Neil Bartlett to stage 24-hour work on Remembrance Sunday

Laura Snapes

04, Jun, 2019 @11:21 AM

Article image
Rail strikes hit passengers in north of England as Southern dispute spreads
More than half of services to be cancelled on Northern and Merseyrail on Monday, but Southern expects to run 90% of trains

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

13, Mar, 2017 @8:35 AM

Article image
Northern Powerhouse Rail: backers say HS2 is vital to its success
In the north of England, the arguments over whether to push on with the HS2 high-speed rail project are as polarised as they are in Westminster. Helen Pidd speaks to those in favour

Helen Pidd North of England editor

04, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Transport spending in London still twice northern England's
Report says despite ‘northern powerhouse’ plan, gap in spending is widening

Helen Pidd North of England editor

20, Nov, 2018 @6:15 PM

Article image
Derek Jarman's punk classic Jubilee to be reignited on stage
Toyah Willcox plays the time-travelling Elizabeth I in the Royal Exchange’s version of the film that caused outrage after 1977’s silver jubilee

Chris Wiegand

07, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Maxine Peake to star in A Streetcar Named Desire in Manchester
Exclusive: Actor will portray troubled Blanche DuBois in Sarah Frankcom production of Tennessee Williams play

Chris Wiegand

24, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Arts Council cuts will hobble regional touring, National Theatre director warns
Rufus Norris says DCMS levelling-up scheme will have exact opposite effect to that intended

Dalya Alberge

19, Jun, 2022 @3:00 PM