London Doesn’t Need Anymore New Theatres

posted in: Blog, Writings | 8

streatham-theatre

There, I’ve said it. Call me a grinch, but I’ve got a gut instinct on this and it is telling me that London doesn’t need another theatre. Londoners are cultural by nature, in a city that’s bursting at the seams with cultural opportunity, with some of the world’s best museums, art galleries and yes, our thriving West End, we’re spoilt for choice. So why are we still building new theatres and converting spaces into performance venues and pop-up theatre in a saturated market?

 

New London Theatres Recap:

  • Underbelly have plans for a 650-seat temporary Spielgeltent in Victoria Embankment Gardens, across the river from their already pretty infamous Purple Cow.
  • Bunker Theatre launch their 110-seat theatre practically underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory next week.
  • Streatham Theatre, a new 120-seat theatre is set to open in December 2017 and has already had wide-spread criticism.

 

…and that’s without mentioning venues which have opened up new studio spaces recently such as Greenwich Theatre or the likes of Ovalhouse moving to Brixton or those faint rumours I’ve heard about the Kings Head Theatre moving into a new space.

 

Reasons Why We Don’t Need Another London Theatre:

  • We’re oversaturated as it is. Audiences are spoilt for choice, and whilst I shouldn’t criticise the excellence of work on our stages it does mean increasingly our audiences have to make a choice. With the unknown impacts of Brexit looming ahead and an economy with tightening of purse-strings audience’s choice will be determined by costs of tickets and reputation of shows. Less money generally equals less risk-taking.
  • There’s only so much funding to go around. Speak to any producer or artist making work and you’ll soon end up lamenting how competitive the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts is. I’d love to see some statistics from ACE on this but I have a hunch that in the last five years applications for their under £15k grants have increased. You need longer lead in times and more match funding to even be considered for a grant. With trusts and foundations under increasing pressure and the boom of crowd funding campaigns, it is the artists and theatre-makers who generally foot the bill to make a piece of work happen.
  • More venues mean more resources (money mostly) going to administrators, staffing and overheads and less on artists and the art itself. More artists spending their own money to get their work on (see above).
  • The likes of Underbelly and the Donmar Warehouse have the marketing budgets to support – although I’m sure at a calculated risk – the ventures of new theatre spaces with big 420-650 capacities. With more advertising and more exposure, lesser venues will suffer. The assumption here being that they are sharing the same audiences as those who attend our pub theatres and fringe venues, but even so, larger marketing spend will always mean smaller show campaigns won’t be heard and audiences stretched.
  • We need (and it makes me feel ill writing this) more audience cultivation, with deeper and more meaningful relationships within our local communities around our pre-existing theatres, not to be harvesting the short-term pop-up excitement of temporary theatre and spaces. Now I’m not being idealistic, but I do think we need theatre and art as a whole to be engrained in our culture and society more. The starting of this has to be at a local and targeted level. The likes of the Streatham Theatre has a remit, because it is part of a larger development project (read: money), to provide spaces for the community, the same is said in the Underbelly application, which will justify to the Council on their development plans. That’s great (apart from those property developers who get to sell their multi-million pound flats, but that’s another blog…) but so many of our current theatres struggle to engage with their local community without adding new venues into the mix.
  • Speaking at an Equity North and North West branch meeting last week I had members raise their concerns about agreements, low pay and working standards in our Fringe Theatres. Equity have been tackling this with their Fringe Agreements, but there is still plenty of work to be done. I wonder how the Bunker Theatre and Streatham Theatre’s will operate in a fair pay environment? Will it, as often is the case, be passed onto the audiences through high ticket prices, or ultimately fall on the hope of an ACE grant before the dreaded profit share? Why is it always the audiences or artists that have to take the risk?

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I might have laid out why I don’t think we need another theatre in London but I’m not adverse to change. If I was to get any tattoo it would be to ink myself with ‘Evolve or Die’, because without evolution we fail to adapt and we get too caught in the past and lo-and-behold, we’re dead. Dramatic, I know, but theatres have to engage in and reassess their place in society and their communities. Not all the time, but it has to be part of a wider strategic reach to ensure longevity and engagement for years to come. I’ve spoken about this before, but my feeling is the theatres of the future won’t just be housing theatre and art, but be social and community spaces that literally power the neighbourhood.

For now though I can’t see the merit in introducing new theatres to London when audience’s are stretched for what to see, funding is so precarious, localised audiences aren’t being developed and artists are the ones left with all the risk. It isn’t fair and it isn’t helping our industry.

So what do we do about it? Is there merit in new theatre venues? Am I being too sensitive to the changing tides of the London theatre ecology, or it is all just too much? Leave a comment below, and let’s start a discussion.

8 Responses

  1. debdavemason

    I’m sort of in agreement with you on some of this, and parts I’m not sure. It rather depends on how the space is used. More pop-ups from big companies might take away market from smaller organisations – or it might just play to those theatre’s existing audiences and allow them to sell out more ‘sell out’ shows. Increasingly with short-runs in middle size venues in London you have to jump in as soon as tickets are announced to get anything. These options allow those venues to get a bit more mileage and money out of successful productions and hopefully give them a bit of reserve for risk-taking. Also many West-End theatres have traditional proscenium arch set ups and make transfers for in-the-round/traverse etc productions difficult (without major alterations to either the theatre or the show) and creating a pop-up space that suits and matches better your own house and style may make sense.

    Small venues in communities are absolutely vital to the arts – couldn’t agree more – assuming that they are actually put at the use of the community and don’t become just an opportunity for someone to try out their ‘curating’ ‘artistic director’ skills in a small venue hoping for a better job. There are fewer and fewer places in London for amateur companies to perform. As you say many writers, directors, actors put on their own shows – there are also fewer and fewer places that will take those shows even for exhorbitant fees that don’t have any relationship to potential box office receipts, and practically non-existent numbers of small scale venues where the hire fee has some relationship to the potential for a break-even return and is willing to programme/hire out to new ventures with no or negligible track-records.

    If we are to have new arts spaces I’d like them to be community spaces able to be put to the use of the community for particpation and entertainment – an old fashioned art centre if you like – but on a micro scale so that we can use them as community hubs – something that we really need in London – neutral, inter-generational spaces where people of all faiths and backgrounds can congregate socially.

    • Jake Orr

      Thank you for the comment Deborah and for sharing some of your ideas about how spaces can function. I think those points are really important for the development of new spaces, something I’ve spoken about before. I love your thoughts on an neautral, inter-generational space, that is really vital, and one that I hope will function out of the new Streatham Theatre, given some of that is listed in the briefing document they sent out for pitches.

      You’re definitely right about how West End theatres make it difficult for productions to transfer, which might explain why the likes of the Donmar are building their own venue, but I just don’t see how that can serve a community. Although at least the Donmar are offering the free tickets for young people (although there is a whole blogpost as to who those young people actually are).

  2. Jessica Brewster

    Hi Jake,

    Interesting commentary on why you don’t think there should be more theatres. However, you don’t tackle the question of why so many new theatres are opening in the first place. The biggies like the Donmar and Underbelly must have evidence that they will be able to generate more audiences otherwise they wouldn’t get the investment. Despite funding cuts it feels like commercial theatre is thriving. Surely, marketing budgets to create new audiences are a good thing for all theatres.

    What’s distinctive about Streatham and the Bunker is that they are being set up by artists. This possibly suggests something far more positive – that artists are committing to localism, community, empowering themselves, creating stability and income for themselves and other artists by being able to diversify income beyond ticket splits, and creating spaces to suit their own types of theatre, all while being able to take greater risks.

    I very much agree that there needs to be so much more effort put into cultivating audiences and creative marketing – something that needs to be shared between venues and artists alike. But I don’t think there’s any assumption that new venues will be sharing the same audiences as pubs and established fringe venues – isn’t it universally acknowledged that they don’t really have audiences any more, and are in some cases terrible places to work and perform in? The majority of them only cater for one type of theatre – a literal text-based, director/writer-led theatre that so many theatre makers are no longer interested in making and feel doesn’t connect with anyone but the director and a limited audience.

    Surely, this movement (to give it too much brevity) is about the reassessing, evolving, and repositioning towards community that you talk about. London’s population is meant to hit 10 million people in the not-too-distant future, and we only need a very small percentage of that to sell out all the seats. The Bush and Hammersmith have shown that a sustained and dedicated commitment to local community pays off. And the numerous sell-out pop-up events have shown that audiences are hungry and will pay (a lot) for the experiences they provide. There’s room for so much more of this.

    I would argue that far more important than limiting theatres being built is creating better networks between theatres in London – sharing learning, ideas, audiences, and marketing – to enthuse, invite and entice audiences to join in.

    Jess

    • Jake Orr

      Thanks for taking the time for the detailed and nuanced comment Jess. Really great to get your perspective on it, and much of what you’ve written is a positive and productive way of looking at what I am mostly concerned about.

      Something that others have pointed out is the difficulty of comparing ventures when they are working under different financial models, and in the case of the smaller theatres an unknown model for now. I agree that commercial theatre is thriving, but I wonder if the same could be said with the subsidised sector? Much of my concerns related to the growth of further venues is rooted in this worry. I’m not sure we’ve seen evidence that the subsidised sector is thriving, with packed hours, meaning a reduction in public subsidy and spread of this further. In my experience working with artists and companies venues are increasingly putting the risk in the artists’ direction.

      I don’t know what The Bunker or Streatham theatres will be like, and it is great to hear you speak about them from an artists’ perspective. The problem as is often the case is how we maintain a venue that is established by artists without those very artists becoming gate keepers. I do worry, as I’ve outlined in this blogpost, that an increase in venues will put pressure on funds across the sector in London. I’m not sure we are, yet, seeing enough diversity with funds that these problems aren’t real.

      I’m all for reassessing, evolving and repositioning towards community, and I’ve heard the argument of growth of residents in London, but I’ve also seen, increasingly, smaller audiences in smaller venues. So whilst yes, larger commercial work is thriving, I’m not sure this is necessarily having a trickle-down effect that we’d like. I don’t have stats for this, it is purely a hunch for now.

      Learning across the board, between venues is vital, and I know that there are networks that have been growing. What Next? a great example of this, and the emerging artists network (is it even called that?) by Camden People’s Theatre is another great sharing of knowledge. I just hope that in continued times of difficulty of accessing funds, and in my opinion, audiences, those networks will remain open and collaborative. It’s what we do best.

      Thanks again for the comment, really thought provoking. I’m glad that this is starting a conversation. If you get a moment look at the comments on my Facebook, there’s been some brilliant and lively debate there.

      Jake

  3. Andrew O'Hanlon

    I don’t see why you should feel ill talking about developing audiiences. Cultural planning may be regarded by some as a thing of the past but its pretty much essential for open, free and outward looking communities.

    • Jake Orr

      Hey Andrew,

      My comment there is relating specifically about my heavy use of jargon, which makes it sound like I’ve lifted something out of an Arts Council application. Developing audiences is, and should be, a priority of many theatres.

  4. richard

    When you say “Why is it always the audiences or artists that have to take the risk?” who else do you think should be taking the risk – even on profit share productions it’s usually the “producer” who takes the risk on the other costs (venue hire, rehearsal room, set, props etc etc) and when – as is often the case – there is no profit to share it’s the producer who walks away out of pocket.

  5. Martin Derbyshire

    I think it’s an interesting and well thought through argument, but I don’t feel that any of us already in the industry can comment on whether new venues springing up is a good or bad thing. There are simply too many people in an industry that has very few opportunities, so good luck to new venues. The fringe scene is essentially commercial and the venues will or die depending on how much money they can generate. I think if producers and venues don’t use the Equity fringe contract they should be stopped if possible, but otherwise it’s all healthy competition. Some fringe venues will come and some will go and if they offer a good product and good engagement they should be fine. Not to mention that London is ever changing, with a venue like The Yard which has done wonderfully well in an area that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.