Bringing Down the House: The Crisis in Britain's Regional Theatres

March 26, 2009

This is a book about the history of the Arts Council and an assessment of regional theatre in Britain. Its subject is that much-visited battleground where funding bodies and artists meet to nervously eye each other up and tentatively shake hands, or go to all-out war.

One might expect the book to be a passionately partisan account of hidden agendas buried deep within a deliberately perplexing bureaucracy or (depending on your political persuasion) a crusade against the promotion of a politically correct inclusivity that sacrifices artistic quality at great expense to the taxpayer.

However, Olivia Turnbull's book demonstrates admirable scholarly detachment and rigour on every page, where the temptation to grind a polemical axe might have been impossible for many writers to resist.

Turnbull has written a painstakingly meticulous survey of the political and cultural war zone that is theatre funding. She points an accusatory finger at the Thatcher Government, which presided over the closure of more than a quarter of British regional theatres in just under 20 years. She justifies this by logical argument validated by convincing evidence and statistics.

This level-headed approach is the wisest for an author to take to dismantle and expose all that lies between the makers of theatre and the controllers of the purse strings. It has the advantage of acknowledging the complexity of the situation while avoiding any accusation of political bias.

The author draws on archival reports and reviews, budgets, documented panel discussions and minutes of meetings. This is hardly riveting material on which to base a book, and in itself is not likely to produce a rollercoaster ride of a read.

However, Turnbull's genius lies in her ability to track the underlying shifts in culture and taste that structure the apparent objectivity of these facts and figures.

The resulting book is a cultural barometer that shows most vividly how attitudes to the arts change in accordance with cycles of financial boom and bust.

In years of prosperity, art is seen as something worthy for everyone to aspire to, a sign of our civilised lifestyle and optimistic outlook that allows for new, radical experiments in style and content. Conversely, austerity calls for a return to tradition, putting London at the cultural centre of the nation, prioritising the safeguarding of the high arts and instigating cuts for everyone else.

In terms of the day-to-day problem-solving that is arts management, the picture is more complex. Local and regional government, theatre boards of trustees, the Arts Council, theatre audiences and the makers of theatre may each have their own targets, agendas, hopes and desires, and these are often mutually exclusive.

Should we prioritise artistic integrity or financial sustainability? Social utility or aesthetic fulfilment? Turnbull shows us how decisions are taken as immediate and pragmatic responses to diverse and specific situations, with no underlying principles, policies or manifestos. It is this lack of coherence that has often left the arts vulnerable to attack.

When theatre companies have to justify their existence to the bean counters, they must first master the jargon. In the period considered in this book, artistic decisions took a step back while administration, business and finance took centre stage and demanded more money and time. Experts in funding were hired, and so a greater fight to gain resources was initiated, while simultaneously more of those resources were spent on chasing funding and less on the making of art.

This kind of lunacy should be familiar to anyone working in the arts, or, indeed, in health or education. Turnbull's book asks whether new Labour has solved any of the problems initiated by Thatcher, or merely continued them.

Bringing Down the House: The Crisis in Britain's Regional Theatres

By Olivia Turnbull. Intellect Books, 192pp, £19.95. ISBN 9781841502083. Published 1 November 2008

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