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theatre Scotland

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.

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.