national theatre

Derek Jacobi as King Lear Photograph: C  Johan Persson The Guardian

The hottest ticket in Scotland is for the NT Live streaming of King Lear this week. Its been sold out in the Edinburgh Cameo Cinema and Dundee’s DCA for some time, against the engrained booking patterns for all the other cinematic and theatrical offerings in those cities. You can get a ticket for any other theatre performance or film screening this week but not for NT Live. Its a signal of significant change in the theatre market.

Demand far exceeds supply for NT Live. With 10o screens in the UK  only four of which are  in Scotland, and with only one live streaming per production, its hardly surprising that NT Live is a premium event, pounced upon by sharp members of the cultural cognoscenti.  NESTA’s research into NT Live audiences for the first two  productions found that audiences for the cinema streamings were similar to audiences at the theatre in terms of education and level of cultural knowledge- a third  had already been to the New York Met streamings. These are the people who know how to bag a hot ticket.

The market for theatre is changing fairly significantly right now.  There is consistent anecdotal evidence throughout the UK and Ireland as to how audience behaviour has changed since the economic downturn began.  Equal and opposite trends are becoming entrenched. On the one hand, people will book in advance and be happy to pay the top prices for anything regarded as guaranteed quality, whether that is quality of enjoyment, entertainment, spectacle and laughter; or of actors, production values and plays and companies with pedigrees; or in festivals where risk-taking is part of the brand.   On the other hand, the less exciting, well-known or enticing productions will suffer from late booking, price resistance and a general reticence until assured by others that its worth seeing.

There was harder evidence published last week  by the Society of London Theatres, showing that audiences for London theatre overall have held, considering the ash and snow,  while box office income is going up.   For the seventh year running, box office increased and was  £512m  in 2010, up 1.5% on 2009 while attendances remained around £14m,  falling  0.79%    This compares with cinema attendances in the UK falling 2.4% in the last year to around 168m but also showing a 5% increase in revenues to £988m, similarly increasing ticket yield at a greater rate than increasing attendances, through charging more and boxing more cleverly about managing yield.

The area where demand has increased most is  in drama. In London theatre the audiences for plays have increased 2% while the ticket income has increased by 10%. The hard evidence complements the anecdotal.  The demand for quality theatre is high and audiences are prepared to pay more for their tickets to see it.

A thriving theatre economy needs a healthy balance between demand and supply, just as it needs a diverse eco-system which encourages experiment.

The supply-side of theatre in the UK is heavily dependent on public subsidy.  Its likely that some of that supply will have its funding cut by Arts Council England, already trailing that up to 6o0 arts organisations could lose funding as ACE has to make cuts of nearly 30% and as local authorities have to reduce spend.  Meanwhile in the USA, where the theatre economy is less supported by state subsidy, Rocco Landesman, Broadway producer and Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts has created consternation by firmly stating that there is an oversupply of theatre in America and that “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply”.

But there is demand for high- quality theatre in the British isles and there is no sign of demand diminishing.   Its the supply that needs to change.  Some of the theatre supply we built up over the last 100 years, in the days when every self-respecting  town of a certain size had a civic theatre, will not have the resources in the future to produce, present or promote quality theatre.

Meantime demand far outstrips supply for NT Live.  The potential for a much larger and more diverse audience is enormous but won’t be achieved while the scarcity of venues means that its the cognoscenti who snap up the tickets and not the average cinema attender. Venues who can kit themselves out with the digital projection and satellite equipment can sign up to NT Live, should they have the notion.  Many theatre managers are sceptical about NT live, having not experienced it first hand. Its not a substitute for home -produced theatre, rather an additional channel.  Live -streaming will be an increasingly essential part of the supply of quality theatre in the 21st century so please, could more venues sign up – particularly in Scotland.


Jean Monti's balancing act on Glasgow Green: from Stuart Chalmer's Flickr photostream

The National Theatre of Scotland, a theatre without walls, is widely admired and sometimes envied amongst theatre communities across the globe because of its operating model.  Unfettered by bricks and mortar, NToS is truly national, partnering, performing and playing in all sorts of venues across Scotland, from the epic settings of the great Scottish outdoors and the village halls to the focus of the proscenium arch.  It verily reaches the parts that other national theatres rarely reach with an even hand unattainable by building based theatres whose touring work will always be seen as second best, out-reached from the centre.

The model for NToS was conceived by the Scottish theatre community, recognising the needs of a nation emerging from a period when much Scottish contemporary culture was filtered though a UK lens. Culture defines a nation and the post –devolution Scottish nation needed a contemporary  creative national theatre through which to explore political and social issues and to present Scotland’s theatrical creativity to the world.  The model enshrined the principle of  mutuality between NToS and the rest of the theatre community and was constructed so as not displace or sabotage the existing producing houses as well as being national. 

The model has changed from the original concept as the inagural team has breathed life into it, animated it and created a company of which Scotland is proud. Its been a brilliant success in many ways.  As the company approaches its 5th birthday, its time to look not only at the areas where it has exceeded expectations, but also to look at where it hasn’t.

NToS has been a great success national and internationally with its programme of work and its education and community activities.  As an artistically-led company, it is bold in its decisions which inform the choice of programme and the aesthetic of the company.  The quality of the work and the clear style exemplified by the work of the NToS’s star director John Tiffany, has established the international reputation of the company. The current team’s approach to risk is breath-taking, not only taking the essential risks on producing new work in new ways in new places, but also, on several occasions, exponentially increasing the risk of success or flop by presenting untested plays and creative teams in the full glare of the Edinburgh Festival.

Hopes and expectations that the company would take some responsibility for articulating and interrogating the ‘collective memory’  of theatre, or for exploring the Scottish canon, have not been met and NToS is clear that that is not a responsibility they wish to shoulder. Perhaps the weight of responsibility of such a role is entwined in the more traditional models of national theatres.

But the role is critical for Scotland and its theatre as a whole.  An attitude which views plays as single-use disposal commodities reflects a lack of care and confidence which ill befits Scotland now .  The plays written and produced in Scotland over the last forty years in particular include many good and some better plays exploring the political and social journey of Scotland towards independence; some pick up threads from earlier work, some were great fun, some were poorly-served by their first (and last) production.  Most of them are unpublished and many forgotten.  At a discussion hosted by the Playwrights’ Studio last week, Peter Arnott explained that students were able to study his play White Rose because a lecturer had found a photocopy.  Not true for many of the other plays produced largely by the Traverse in the 70s, 80s and 90s.  

So its good to see that the PlayResource will begin to catalogue these plays.  We need to organise and to fully consider and comment on what might be called the Scottish canon.  The Irish Playography contains a complete listing of plays since 1904 and most plays are downloadable – just what we need in Scotland.

And the enterprising APA – Aberdeen Performing Arts, seeing the gap in the market for productions of adaptations of popular Scottish novels which many expected NToS to fill, has remounted its successful productions of Sunset Song and the Silver Darlings this year at the Festival Fringe.

If NToS does not need to take on these weighty responsibilities, it should nevertheless shoulder some responsibility at these time of crunch and reduced funds by playing on its strengths and meeting specific needs. With its considerable artistic talents and resources, it should help out the ailing Citizens’ Theatre after the resignation of Jeremy Raison who had the impossible task of taking over from Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.  This triumvirate led the Citz for three decades and established the Citz as a world leading theatrical brand which audiences loved and trusted. Like John McGrath and 7:84, Havergal and co took huge theatrical risks and took their audiences with them.  A regeneration of the Citz will require such radical departures.  The Theatre is reportedly expecting that it will take a year to appoint a new director.

In the meantime, NToS should step in and produce a season of plays at the Citz.  The season could include some plays from the potential Scottish canon at all scales in the various auditoria.  The sheer creative quality which NToS brings would ensure the best productions.  The programming of a season would allow space for connections to be made between works and also a programme of debate and discussion.  And the temporary home would allow NToS to try out ideas in spaces more sheltered than the Edinburgh Festival.

Like so many things NToS does, this idea was not a notion in the original model for NToS. But it would bring big theatrical benefits for the Scottish theatre community as a whole.

Theatre counterweights

The English speaking National Theatre of Wales presented its inaugural production  this week, watched not only by its audiences at miners’ clubs   but also by political and cultural custodians and commentators viewing it as an instrument of national culture.   In an interview with Will Gomptez, Dai Smith the Chair of Arts Council Wales described NTW as an essential tool in ‘nation building’  and ‘a natural next step in the process of devolution and an important act of self-expression’.  So no pressure there then for John McGrath and his small team.  With only £1m for an eclectic and ambitious programme NTW has saved on costs through its interactive on line community and print-free promotion, but unlikely to have allocated resources for explaining itself.  A theatre company’s work should speak for itself but the expectations of a national theatre company weigh much more heavily.  How long will it be before the inevtiable public debate about its role, its policy and its relationship with the Welsh speaking National Theatre?  

The National Theatre of Scotland‘s honeymoon lasted four years before it found itself the object of serious attack about its attitude to the legacy of Scottish plays.  Its directors have been accused of not respecting a Scottish canon and heritage  in sustained attacks in opinion columns and letters pages of  newspapers.  While NToS has not responded defensively to the attacks,  it would be wise to accept that, as a national theatre, it should show some leadership in articulating its role and responsibilities and to remind us of where it came from as well as where it is going.    National theatres in other small nations have done so. Ireland’s Abbey Theatre has weathered 100 years of public debate about its artistic choice and political role and now lays out its stall, describing its legacy and history and how that influences the present in  initiating and participating in the national conversation

The roots of the National Theatre of Scotland are in the politics of devolution and the symbiotic relationship between culture and identity, and in the contemporary theatre sector’s response to this.  

There is also a vital legacy of  Scottish plays and the Scottish theatrical traditions from variety,  to the  political and community theatre of John McGrath and 784.  The plays by great Scottish playwrights from Hogg and Lindsay, through Barrie, Lamont Stewart, to the great cannon of work from the last 5o years are all part of the ingredients which the National Theatre of Scotland has to play to create great theatre experiences for today’s audiences. 

NToS neither has obligation to produce the historic work  nor  was it  set up to do this. It has produced Chris Hannan’s Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and is to produced Barrie’s Peter Pan as well as new plays from Scottish writers.  Have they got the balance right?  All theatres are faced with hard choices.  The directors of the company would do well to articulate role and policy in the context of the past as well as the present. 

And then get on with the great, internationally successful, relevant-to-contemporary- Scotland shows.

Cassatt's At the Opera by profzucker.

Research into the  NT live experiment shows just what a success this early stage is. Audiences at  the live streamings in cinemas experience the  ‘live’ experience not just as much as those in the theatre, BUT MORE. And they report even higher levels of emotional engagement than those at the theatre.  My own experience bears this out – you get close to the actors in a way that you can’t in a large theatre. The audience appears to be more diverse, attracting more attenders from lower income brackets at the livestreams than in the theatre, and attracting those for whom attendance at the South Bank would be out of reach.NT live has contributed to the ‘virtual capacity’ of the theatre, with no signs of a cannabilisation of theatre box office income according to the research published by NESTA.

NT live shows how the main stream of our theatres can break through the so-called fourth wall of theatre.

During the last 50 years, theatre makers realised that they could become boxed in by the proscenium arch theatres prevalent in the control- and -command culture of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.  Some began the quest to break the ‘fourth wall’  through creative use of design and directing, so that the actor and audience could engage as directly as possible.  In the 20th century, theatre auditoria which were more intimate were built, from tiny studio theatres like the Traverse to courtyard theatres like the Cottesloe, which took as inspiration the more interactive theatres of Shakespeare’s day, unconstrained by proscenium arches and dress circles.   This escape from the prosc arch has picked up speed in the 21st century, with site specific and interactive work applauded by critics. Even the Theatres Trust trustees have declared prosc arch theatres to be old hat.

Old hat they may be for the avant garde and cutting edge of theatre makers.  But the overall economy of theatre demands that the mainstream of work and audiences meet in the larger theatres, where work on a grand scale can take place and audience can attend in their droves.   And while modern theatre architecture can make light work of the proscenium, like Daniel Libeskind’s Grand Canal Theatre, its still there. And opera glasses may be required if you are at the back of the upper circle.

People like going to the theatre, attendances are up, at least in the West End, and many want to see some of the grand scale work.  Until now, that has meant travelling to the theatre usually in the metropolis,paying a hefty sum and if paying less than the top price,often being too far away from the stage to break through the fourth wall.  The success of NT Live is a game-changing phenomenon.

And thats before 3D is mainstreamed.

Andy Field’s blog in the Guardian about the National Theatre is provoking lively debate, much of it because the subbed headline Why We Should Really Demolish the National Theatre is, according to Andy, not what he means at all.  The main thrust of his argument is that a national theatre should not be chained to a concrete mass.  His desire for the National to work across England, free of buildings, is the latest expression of the current theatrical vogue for producing theatre outside of conventional spaces and for encouraging the audience to become more active players.

In fact, the National has pioneered national engagement with its work with NT Live which reaches a new and broader audience throughout Britain and overseas.  This will deliver wider and more far reaching  benefits than packing up the NT shows and touring them throughout the land.

Andy is also a fan of the new models for national theatres, in particular The National Theatre of Scotland which is not boxed in by bricks and mortar, and the National Theatre of Wales which launches this year.  But, to make an obvious point, England is not Scotland.  There is the issue of scale.  Scotland does not have the mega regional producing venues of Leeds, Manchester and the like.  At 5m, the population of Scotland is just less than that of the North West of England.

NToS was initiated by the Scottish Government at the behest of the theatre community, to work with it in partnership and not to compete with it.  And we didn’t need another building, as we have lots already.  This model is not without its problems as the very success of NToS  means that it can hoover up talent, attention and resources but the success of NToS is highly dependent on a healthy Scottish theatre sector.

Scotland is a small country where the national theatre is a crucial expression of cultural identity and is then more similar to other small nations where the national theatre,  of whatever model, has a particularly significant role as a national cultural institution.  In Ireland, the current proposals to re-house the Abbey in the GPO building rather than in a new one reflects its primary importance as a cultural institution.

The Royal National Theatre has a greater role than as a national theatre of England and it has responsibilities  as a national cultural institution.  It has a perfectly serviceable building and does a great job .  Yes theatre should take place everywhere, but sending the National out all over England when there are so many other major players cant really make sense.


The process of reduction of 20th century cultural institutions and dismantling of the machinery intensified last week with the publication of the McCarthy report in Ireland declaring open season on challenges to the cultural public sector. Two weeks ago the Arts Council of England announced its proposals to cut 131 staff.  Last week  DCMS forewarned of  the £100m ‘black hole’ in its budget likely to result in mothballing of various capital projects including  Tate Modern, British Museum and BFI. “Let the elite’s building funds dry up. Outside, cultural Britain is flourishingwrote Simons Jenkins in the Guardian.    Comments on the piece by that well known group of Guardian readers – educated, cultured, liberal, leftie etc – more or less all agreed with him.

Over in Ireland the ‘An Bord Snip’ report by Colm McCarthy, signalled the lancing of the unaffordable public sector in Ireland.  McCarthy is looking for savings of some €5.3bn across the board and in the arts and creative industries this includes the abolishment of the Irish Film Board and Culture Ireland as well as reductions in the amount of funding to the Arts Council.  There is also a recommendation to consider the abolishment of the Department of Arts Sports and Tourism in the context of severe reductions in the funding and activities of that Department and as a means to generate additional savings in the cost of Government administration.

Of course the bluntness of the proposals has been greeted by an outcry from those in the arts and creative industries.  At the opening of the new Druid Theatre in Galway Festival last week, Gary Hynes, director of Druid Theatre and Pat Moylan, Chair of the Arts Council spoke up for the arts and the cultural and economic value they generate.  In all the hullaballoo, the cause most worth fighting for is having a Culture Minister at the Cabinet table.  Its less about the money, more about the influence.

No one can be unrealistic about the current economic crisis and the need to reduce public expenditure.  We need to ensure that we preserve the artistic capability to survive the recession. But this does not mean retaining the status quo, either in terms of the arts we subsidise or in terms of the machinery and organisations we retain.

The world has changed with the global economic crisis and climate change.  And is changing fast with the development of the internet.  20th century arts and culture can no longer be regarded as the only creative industries worthy of support.  The creative industries as a sector  includes interactive and digital media and this is where there is the greatest potential for growth, innovation and cultural, social and economic benefit.  Digital media and internet communication has already inspired innovative Iphone Apps, games, web drama and other open source art, photography and music products, services and artefacts.  The platforms encourage personalised experiences and collaboration which are not dependent on travelling to a city to an event at a particular time, which may be free and which are close to carbon neutral.  Interactive games is a sector where the UK and Scotland in particular is a global leader and where public support can deliver significant economic impact.

The internet has also revolutionised the way we can operate businesses – including the cultural agencies which are currently under threat. Many of the costs associated with running these agencies accrue from managing the complex administration systems required pre today’s technological capabilities.

We need to reduce the number, size and cost of public agencies and need to make sure that these public agencies operate expertly, swiftly and efficiently to make strategic interventions across the arts and creative industries, working in partnership with economic agencies.  This is what is proposed for Creative Scotland.

We need to support artists, to nurture talent and to retain core cultural organisations, as centres of excellence in an art form, like national theatres, or as regional creative hubs, providing neutral enabling spaces for creative experiences.  The agencies should delegate or contract out activity and programmes to them instead of running them themselves. We need to get as much of the resources as possible into the arts and creative experiences and reduce the cost of the machinery to do this.

We will need to lose many workers in the arts and culture.  Artists, actors, musicians, writers, dancers, craftspeople, technicians, designers, directors are by nature both freelance and adaptive.  The salaried staff who will be made redundant as the cultural machinery is dismantled are a mixed bag of professionals.  Most of them, administrators, marketers, managers, are passionate about the arts and have a creative and positive approach to work.  While some will stay employed, society could benefit from their skills in other ways.  Most have transferable skills could improve the performance of many other public and private organisations with their creativity and enthusiasm.  Most could also contribute towards creative experiences in their own communities through volunteering in schools and community organisations, as we can presume less and less professional community arts activity and more need to get involved with schools   Many could mentor others. A benefit of a shrinking economy could be a higher valuing of non professionalised arts activities.

Some should transfer their skills to the new creative industries but working not for the ‘boulder’ organisations of the 20th century but as ‘pebbles’, small and independent (as defined by Charles Leadbetter).  Those people are the more entrepreneurial types. Some few will be lucky enough to be made redundant by the public sector and could use their redundancy pay to set up and some are fortunate enough to be supported by independent means.  Others need support in setting up as a small enterprise.  The Arts Council of England and the New Deal of the Mind published last week a report Do it yourself: cultural and creative self-employment in hard times which makes the case for DPW to set up a success to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme of the 80s which supported the establishment of a very significant body of sustainable creative industries.  That’s just what we need now, for many of our young artists and creative practitioners and also for the not so young cultural support worker.

And what of the new streamlined public agencies?  We need the best leaders and creative professionals in these agencies, experts in the arts, culture and creative industries.  There used to be a tradition (and still is in some rare examples) where our top creative people transferred in and out of the cultural agencies and to and from the coalface as artists or entrepreneurs.  We should have fixed term contracts in these agencies just as we do for boards and for artistic directors.

The dismantling of 20th century cultural machinery is inevitable but lets get the best of benefits from our creative workers in new settings.

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Phèdre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The success of the  live screening of the National Theatre’s Phedre this week in 70 cinemas through NT  Live has sent up a flare signalling the future for theatre and how it can  become both exponentially more democratically accessible and available and also more economically viable.

That most esteemed of theatre critics, Michael Billington, was at the Chelsea Cinema for the premiere and his review in The Guardian surely will startle the doubters and traditionalists of the theatre world  who believe that being in the auditorium is the only place for the play.

He writes:

I came to a startling conclusion: the production worked even better in the cinema than it did in the Lyttelton. And the implications of that are enormous.

Once the show started, I and the rest of the audience sat spellbound. For a start, Bob Crowley’s set, with its sweeping platform and vast open sky, looked beautiful: I could even see, as I couldn’t in the theatre, how the palace walls were pocked and weathered by time. Robin Lough, using five multi-video cameras, also directed Hytner’s production impeccably for the screen: the cameras took us inside the action, allowed us to see faces in close-up and framed characters against the blue cyclorama, investing them with an epic quality.

So what does the success of this screen Phèdre tell us? Partly that a cinema audience can be as moved as people sitting in the theatre: everyone applauded loudly at the curtain call just as if they were in the Lyttelton. But the main lesson is that a theatre production can be made democratically available to a mass audience without any loss of quality: indeed because the camera can mix close-up and long shot and because we can all hear easily, the aesthetic impact may actually be enhanced. For generations we have been told that the theatre is elitist. Last night it was shown that a supposedly difficult classical tragedy can speak simultaneously to people across the globe. The National already has plans to broadcast three more plays over the next year. But my hunch is that this is only the beginning of a revolution in making theatre available in ways of which we had never dreamed.

With the advent of 3D screening, the potential for further extending the availability and intensity of the theatrical experience will be increased.  Live screening will revolutionise the business model for theatre and make it more economically viable for those theatre companies able to produce great work and then sell more tickets than available for the performance in the theatre.

The ramifications for our current theatre infrastructure could be profound.  If we can all have access to world class national and top flight theatre in our comfortable cinemas at low cost, will we be still be willing to take the risk attending our local theatres where not only will the offer be less reliable but we have to queue for the loos?

Will the public funders, confronted by the constraints of their less public sector resources over the next period, be willing to continue to subsidise some of the companies and venues which they have supported in more prosperous times?

We need to recognise the revolution in theatre making and embrace the potential to make great theatre available to all of us.  We need more local, collaborative and community theatre projects and we also need to provide venues which will house the live screenings of great theatre, now and in the 3D future.  This means that communities should have creative hubs, neutral centres for creative experiences including screenings, debates and discourse, performances and socialising, a 21st century refreshments of the civic theatre of the 20th century.