Features Published 11 March 2015

Fighting for the Future

On Nottingham Playhouse’s revival of Posh and the theatre’s response to funding cuts.

Jack Perkins

Laura Wade’s Posh is the new play that refuses to be put on the shelf. Since its first production in 2010 at the Royal Court it has transferred to the West End and now, in 2015, Posh has received its first production outside of London at the Nottingham Playhouse. And while the Playhouse’s chief executive Stephanie Sirr was wary of whether the play would be received as too London-centric, the production has been met with great enthusiasm by critics and audiences alike in Nottinghamshire.

The play looks in through the gilded window of privilege in the UK. It follows the termly dinner of the fictional Riot Club, a society for young men with demonstrable amounts of money and privilege to wreak havoc and satisfy their every ugly and hedonistic whim. Wade draws on the legacy of the Bullingdon club, as attended by our current Prime Minister, Mayor of London and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Posh is a canny bit of programming on part of the Playhouse, book-ending the Tories’ (non-majority) election into power in 2010 and the run-up to the election in 2015. The Playhouse are drawing attention to the inequality of representation that runs right through the centre of our governance and, in the process, are speaking to the effect central government decisions have made on local authorities and services. In February 2014, after a public consultation, Nottinghamshire County Council confirmed it would not be renewing its annual grant of £94,500 to the Playhouse. This means a withdrawal of 100% of their annual funding of the Playhouse’s work and projects across the county. 

Much as with Jack Thorne’s new play Hope, which debuted at the Royal Court last year and centred on a Labour local council struggling with the herculean task of cutting £22 million from its spending, theatres are making a prime part of their output that which speaks directly to their ability to politicise. They’re embodying the people, the politicians behind the modern screens of PR, and representing the effects of budgets and social policy in action. They are speaking to the threat imposed on theatre and the arts’ ability to open up and reserve this space in the future. As Thorne asks about key services in an interview with the Guardian, “what does it mean that we’re shutting places that help people?”

Where the Playhouse’s work has been hit hardest by the County Council withdrawing said grant has been their work in the community. “Without a doubt more of our work now is focused in the city in terms of the community outreach,” Sirr tells me. The subsidy from the county was going into more “bespoke work with people with the greatest need”. The Playhouse maintains a strong, wide and varied programme of in-house services for youth theatre, interactive sessions for children and carers, courses for over-60s. However, with this cut, the breadth and remit of its essential work must shrink. And those who feel this the most are already the most resource hungry across the county.

It’s difficult to make guesses about whether or when such funding will be reinstated. Sirr is certain that the county council did not want to make the cut they did. The Playhouse’s campaign to retain funding during the public consultation period was not a fight against any cut. As Sirr remarks, the council are “placed in an incredibly invidious position financially by central government and we were completely sympathetic to that. But it’s a statement, if you cut something completely you’re basically saying you’re ending the relationship”. 

In the face of “63% of respondents opposing or not supporting the proposal”, the council did or could not reverse their proposal. Here is the struggle on a local level. Where we build barriers and argue for protection of what we believe to be our essential services, the local authorities – who largely share our beliefs – are unable to defend and support us. Their hands are tied by the punishingly stringent budgets made by central government; where the money goes is only superficially in the hands of our elected councillors. 

In terms of the Playhouse’s ability to provide this work without a financially supportive relationship from the local authority, Sirr puts it thus: “inevitably it costs more in the hard cash terms than we were getting in funding anyway but that’s not the point. We’re here to provide a service, a cultural service for a region. Not just a city or town or anywhere else. We have to do things as a partnership. You can’t sort of parachute in and deliver a programme and disappear again”.

The Playhouse is not at a loss, however, for strategies that will hold it in good stead for the future. Posh has been enabled by a co-production with Salisbury Playhouse. Much like the recent partnership with Headlong on 1984 and several of the Playhouse’s productions in recent years, co-production has become a strategy of ensuring the work can be made, splitting the costs and sharing a run of the production. Sirr offers that “if we hadn’t been able to find a co-producer, I’m not sure we would have been able to afford to do it”. Co-production is the kind of buffer against precariousness that affords the Playhouse a secure future as a great part of Nottingham and what it offers those in the city and around the county. And, as Sirr admits, what helps her sleep at night.

The government’s funding to Arts Council England has been slashed by 33% from 2010 up to the most recent reports in November of last year. And as Sirr remarks, “the amount of money that was being spent on it before the cuts was still pretty derisory”. This was “still less than half a per cent of public spending” according to Sirr, and she finds it remarkable for any governing body to make cuts to the cultural offer across the UK “considering it’s the fastest growing part of the economy, and seeing the impact it has on tourism and the profile of the country”. Regardless of political beliefs, left or right, for Sirr, “to cut culture has never made any sense”.

In spite of the jeopardised state of funding since 2010, the Playhouse is working towards greater freedom of access to their work. On 18th February, they ran a Pay What You Can performance of Posh in which audience members were free to (as the title puts it) pay what they could for their ticket. Sirr keenly understands the financial barriers to entry, even at a regional repertory theatre: “even though our tickets are cheap, for any performance of our in-house work you can pay £9.50 for a ticket. £9.50 is £9.50, if you don’t have £9.50 it might as well be £28.50”. The evening was a great success in engaging new visitors to come to the Playhouse; it was attended by 300 people, of which 30% of the audience had never been to Nottingham Playhouse before and 20% of those attending came from areas of least engagement.

Nottingham Playhouse's production of Posh. Photo: Richard Lakos.

Nottingham Playhouse’s production of Posh. Photo: Richard Lakos.

Pay What You Can Afford is a scheme that has been championed by Slung Low at the HUB in Leeds, and is a great part of their mission statement as a company: “because everyone has different circumstances as many of our shows as possible will be ‘pay what you decide’- you give the amount of money you think is right after you see the show”. Sirr is keen to continue this programme on all their future in-house productions, but this requires a backer. For Posh, the Nottingham Evening Post lent its support and partnership. It remains to be seen when and whether an organisation will enable this programme to run in future.

Alongside their burgeoning Pay What You Can scheme, the Playhouse has also introduced free programmes. Above the entrance to the theatre is printed “Our Grade II Listed Theatre is 50 Years Old – Please Make a Donation to Help Secure its Next 50 Years”. It is significant that not only are the Playhouse making concerted efforts to open th: eir doors wider, but they want their new audiences to be as aware, as informed, as invested as the frequent theatregoer.  And that is one of the most important factors in securing this theatre’s long future: that the community feels a sense of ownership over the work that’s done on the stage and off.

It’s clear that where there are smaller budgets, regional theatres need to ask more from their audiences and their patrons. However, the Playhouse is going about this by offering more for free and lifting some of the financial barriers to entry. I believe they have opened their season of new in-house work, starting with Posh, with a clear mission statement: this theatre belongs to the people of Nottinghamshire, and as the financial threat moves closer and closer in on the future of the work of theatres across the regions, the Playhouse will continue to champion this above all else. 

So what must be done to better secure the future of the cultural offer and services that Nottingham Playhouse, and theatres like it, provides?

Sirr is optimistic about the current government’s plan to introduce a tax rebate for theatre productions through HMRC, “though it’s actually not quite workable yet […] it’s a good idea and it incentivises production.” In a report from HMRC in August 2014, it was announced that the “relief will provide an additional corporation tax deduction, or a payable tax credit, worth up to 25% of qualifying expenditure for touring productions and 20% for all other productions”. In effect, for all productions mounted, the treasury will pick up the tab to the amount of a quarter or a fifth spent. 

The tax rebate system has already been trialled and put in place in the British film industry, among others. However, theatres across the nation will have to remain wary of how this tax rebate might be used. The problems associated with such market based solutions to funding, against further commitment to charitable foundations and funding bodies, have been illustrated on the recent series The Business of Film by Mark Kermode for Radio 4.

Tax rebates could be profoundly useful to theatres across the country, especially those most affected by budgetary cuts. I hope, however, that this will incentivise a future model of funding for the programmes of bespoke work for the most resource hungry – those who have been left behind during the current funding crisis – and that the funds returned in the tax rebate would be channelled into programmes that reach out from the theatres to those who are currently unable to come to them. This, rather than fuelling an industry which will swell at its own potential, growing greater in theatrical scale – more lights, more trap-doors (here’s looking at you, the RSC) – and in the process leaving behind the communities and the audiences it is made for.  

The most pressing funding concern for Sirr in the future is the split of government funding between London and the regions. Sirr is concerned over how much of the free culture that is provided in London is actually used by tourists, because “somewhere the money has to come back. You’ve got a fantastic tourism offer, and tourists are spending tonnes of money in London in particular, also heritage around the country” but there needs to be a way of earmarking or transferring some of those funds back to culture and the cultural services on offer around the country. The trouble in the current arrangement is where funding is coming from. Sirr is firm that “it shouldn’t all be the DCMS stumping up for that, or it certainly shouldn’t be the Arts Council stumping up all that money.”

Sirr’s sentiments are shared in a report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, the conclusions of which were published in November last year. In said report, the group of MPs stated that “London’s galleries, theatres and other cultural organisations get a disproportionate share of England’s arts funding”. And as reported by the BBC, the “committee’s conclusions come a year after a separate report said arts funding from central government amounted to £69 per head in London and £4.60 elsewhere in England”. It is a gross imbalance, and one which screams out from the tables and figures. For those in the most need, whom the Nottingham Playhouse now struggle – or are no longer able – to reach.

This contradiction is put most succinctly by Sirr: “you can’t really imagine a situation where you’d have a capital city where arts funding is spent on the great shopping offer”.

No, you certainly could not.

Posh transfers to Salisbury Playhouse and runs from 12th March to 4th April.

Jack Perkins is a founding member of Barrel Organ Theatre Company and an English and Theatre Student at Warwick University.

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