BSC Address

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Regional theatre

The situation in Bristol, Derby and now Exeter is extremely worrying: there are different reasons for each situation but all of them are in dire trouble.

I am only able to comment with knowledge about Bristol, my favourite theatre in the country, which has been sadly mismanaged for twenty years, culminating in the distasterous rule of Simon Reade and David Farr. The London critics may have loved some of their work, but their reign epitomised the worst aspects of regional mismanagement: they couldn't have cared less for their local audience in Bristol - both men had both eyes firmly fixed on London and were completely uninterested in attracting the vibrant audience that had once flocked to the BOV when I used to visit it monthly. Indeed, I witnessed the end of the glory days in the 80's, when it was sometimes hard to get a seat in the upper gallery. In recent years there was never a reason to even open the upper galary - their stated target was 40% capacity and it was only propped up by Arts Council funding, who seemed oblivious to the catastophe unfolding within their remit.

We are in a very strange situation when it seems no-one within London - and I include the critics as well as the funding strategists - seem to have an inkling about what is really happening regionally. The national newspapers would have told you Bristol was thriving, when everyone in Bristol knew it was on the brink of disaster. Birmingham suffered the same malais under Bill Alexander, a man with no real interest in Birmingham, who while being lauded by the critics, brought the Birmingham Rep to its knees.

It was finally rescued by one of the few men in this business who understands effective programming, Jonathan Church. Jonathan has gone from Salisbury to Birmingham to Chichester, restoring their flagging fortunes within months of his arrival. The key to his success is that his programming never places itself above the local audience: it draws them in, not only with well known titles but rare and unusual plays which have a special appeal. He is the Richard Eyre of regional theatre and one day, one imagines, he may even get a shot at running the big building itself. He has clearly shown that most venues can thrive if only the people running them keep in mind what their theatre is for.

If Bristol, Derby and Exeter are allowed to falter, it would be a catastophe for the industry. The people in charge of these fraught affairs should ensure they get some real knowledge about the local situation, rather than relying on London-lead versions and half-versions of the truth. And they need to get a grip on this fast before more theatres go the same way. Didn't there used to be a theatre in Worcester once too?!


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