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Theatremonkey Ups and Downs

September 15, 2010

The up? First standing ovation I’ve given a full cast and company since 2004. “Into The Woods” at the Open Air Theatre. It stayed dry – though in a fit of pessimism I forked out £3 on a canary yellow, convenience store thin plastic bag with a hood ‘rain protector’ – and the second half of the performance turned out to exceed the first in quality. Sadly, it’s finished now and exists only in the memory of audiences. Pity the mist that is theatre.

The down? Thinking about cuts in arts funding. I grew up in a time when Peter Hall’s National Theatre pointedly closed the Cottesloe to protest at the lack of grant money. Back in the 80s, the arts saw financial support as their due, and if the tax payer wasn’t going to spring for it, then they’d simply take their ball home.

In the 90s, private / public partnership became the vogue. The Travelex £10 seasons at the National today represent the zenith of achievement, balancing accessible pricing with modern need for sparing the public purse.

So, what got me depressed? A news report last week had a member of the public saying that when it comes to a choice between art galleries and hospitals, there is no contest. My depression… I totally agreed with him.

I make my living from the commercial arts, and many of the biggest hit productions in the West End came from the subsidised sector – developing them elsewhere would be more or less impossible. This means filling out theatres with short runs of stand-up comedy (as at the height of the recession last year) or cheap small cast proven classic plays, with maybe the odd sure-fire nostalgic musical if anybody can scrape the money together.

Concerning musicals, that conclusion I deduced in a final year University thesis on the cultural basis of the art form many years ago. Without the support of the few who ‘made it,’ new work in Britain would have died long before. As it is, there are very few new works seen, though we have the writers and a few brave souls willing to support them by at least producing concept CD albums if not full stage versions of thier output.

And yet, and yet…  it is hard to make a case for anything that isn’t to the good of the widest possible public when it comes to allocating tight funds. The arts – any form of entertainment – are vital for public moral (the Blitz spirit 70 years ago, the chance for universal ridicule of Jedwood as a distraction from Gordon Brown last year etc etc). The question is, how far should the tax payer support them over something as useful as working protection for our service people abroad, for example? Over simplistic, but that was how my mind was working.

The pleasure given to those who could afford those three hours at Regent’s Park were probably as good as all the anti-depressants the NHS could prescribe. Oddly, they probably worked out cheaper too – if you were paying market value for the drugs rather than the standard fixed state-subsidised prescription fee. Unfortunately, a three hour dose of music without a subsidised fee is more expensive and probably less effective anyway than pills. Arts subsidy is about bringing the forgotten and disposed centre stage and together to share. So is universal healthcare. There should be a case for both, but when it comes down to it; if you fall off a ladder, do you prefer to be attended to by a team of doctors and nurses, or an avant-garde mime act?

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