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.
- Donmar Warehouse launch their 420-seat temporary theatre at Kings Cross, as part of an extension of the Kings Cross Theatre which has a capacity of 992.
- Streatham Theatre, a new 120-seat theatre is set to open in December 2017 and has already had wide-spread criticism.
- Alexandra Palace are raising funds to restore their victorian theatre reimagining the space into a 1,300-seat theatre.
…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.