The bold, the old and the obsolete

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It’s boom time for regional theatre, with slick new buildings opening all over Britain. But many of the shows are still stuck in the past. Change or die, advises Lyn Gardner.

This month sees the opening of Hull Truck’s new, 15m, state-of-the-art theatre, right in the heart of the Yorkshire city. Gone is the leaky old tin shed where John Godber, playwright of the people, produced some of his best plays; in comes an ambitious two-auditorium venue. Over in Sheffield, meanwhile, the 15m restoration of the Crucible theatre will be completed later this year; actor Daniel Evans was recently appointed its new artistic director, following in the footsteps of Sam West and Michael Grandage. The 60m Curve theatre in Leicester, a glass culture palace, opened to huge fanfare in December last year.

The last few years have been a boom time for regional theatre buildings, but has it been a boom time for regional theatre itself? Behind the glossy new facades, there are growing concerns: resources are increasingly limited, and theatre-making has changed beyond recognition. A rising generation of artists and companies (Punchdrunk, Dreamthinkspeak, Kneehigh) have freed themselves from the constraints of formal theatre spaces, worked with new technologies, and built a relationship with audiences that is a world away from people sitting quietly in the stalls while actors command the stage. Where do today’s regional theatres fit into all this? New buildings take a long time to plan and build: is there a risk that some theatres will be obsolete by the time they open their doors?

There is an argument that the regions are the prime training ground of the theatre industry. This is as outmoded as the idea that working on a regional newspaper serves as an apprenticeship for Fleet Street. Directors such as Katie Mitchell, Felix Barrett and Thea Sharrock, and actors such as Dominic Cooper, Rory Kinnear and Kelly Reilly, are just some of the many who have forged successful careers without venturing far from London. Many actors’ agents much prefer their clients to take a role at a fashionable London fringe venue, where they might be spotted for a lucrative TV series, than a lead at a regional theatre, where casting directors never venture.

So if these theatres are no longer at the heart of training, and are increasingly expensive to run, do they still serve a purpose in our theatre culture? I, along with the very large swathes of the population they serve, would say a resounding yes. But it’s a yes that comes with a proviso: these buildings and their management need to recognise that British theatre is changing. The old idea of a regional theatre as the flagship around which the rest of the city revolves is dying; it is now only one element in a flotilla of activity. If these buildings want to keep their place in our theatre culture, they need to breathe out – and engage a wider community – as well as in.

In some cases, this will require a change not just in attitude but in operation. If a commercial producer can put together a hugely successful regional tour such as the current McKellen-Stewart Waiting for Godot, why can’t regional theatres collaborate on something similar? There are obvious financial as well as artistic benefits. A theatre such as the Drum in Plymouth has successfully nurtured new artists and new audiences. Philip Ridley’s controversial Mercury Fur, starring Ben Whishaw, caused outrage when it came to London, but Drum audiences took its graphic sexual violence in their stride. Why can’t other theatres be as bold? What is subsidy for, if not to encourage risk?

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