One of the pleasures of my life has been going to the theatre in what we in London call the regions but which used to be the places I lived. As a resident of (in turn) Manchester, Stockport, Oxford, Cardiff and Coventry, I used to visit the capital, but my main theatre-going was in those cities and their surrounds.
I saw productions there which knocked me out and changed my mind about things; I met the works of Shakespeare, Albee, Ibsen, Wilde, and Pinter in those places. I also saw musicals that thrilled me and those that disappointed, pantos to make you cry with laughter or writhe in despair and new writing to make you think or throw things at the stage. All of which makes me very conscious of how vital regional theatre is to the health of our culture.
Local authority funding for the arts has dropped by more than a third since 2008
That, in turn, makes me hugely alarmed by this week's findings by the 2017 Arts Index, compiled by the National Campaign for the Arts, which indicate that local authority funding for the arts has dropped by more than a third since the index began. In 2008/9 it says, the amount invested by councils amounted to £9.59 per person. By 2016 it was down to £5.87 – a fall of 39 per cent – and it continues to crash.
The cuts have been steepest, unsurprisingly, in the past six years. Combined with a decline in lottery and treasury funding, this puts the health of the arts outside London close to the critical list, since philanthropic support is that much harder to attract outside the glitzy lights of the capital.
A new generation of young people are being deprived of discovering the richness that culture can bring into their lives
You can't absolutely blame the local authorities – though I do, a bit. In a situation where general funding is under pressure, then it is always easy to lop your support for the arts off the budget. No one will die because of it, or end up lonely because you have just cut social care. But they will end up impoverished; a new generation of young people are being deprived of discovering the richness that culture can bring into their lives. An older generation is seeing their opportunities for entertainment and enlightenment squeezed unless they can afford ever-rising ticket prices.
It is, in truth, a scandal. Yet because it pales in significance beside other scandals such as the way that universal credit is being rolled out so that the most vulnerable suffer incredible hardship, it's easy to see why people aren't screaming from the rooftops.
Thank goodness then for Tom Burke, usually known as War and Peace's Tom Burke (he played Dolokhov to devastating effect), a lovely actor and clearly an enlightened man. He announced this week that he has formed a company called Ara, in collaboration with the Israeli theatre director Gadi Roll – and their first production will be a version of Don Carlos that will open at the Exeter Northcott, before moving to the Nuffield Southampton Theatres and then to the Rose Theatre Kingston. Vibrant local theatres all.
So hurrah for him, and for lending his TV-based appeal (he also starred as Cormoran Strike in the recent JK Rowling thriller adaptations) to the cause of making sure regional theatres continue to have their share of thrilling new work. Let's hope others will follow suit.
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