Blank stares and other responses to the relationship between the commercial and subsidised theatre sectors

Richard Kingdom talks more about the background of show business, a one-day symposium towards greater connectivity between commercial and subsidised models in theatre’s independent sector, which is being held next month at The National Theatre.


I began discussing ideas for the show business symposium with colleagues last September but the seeds for it were sown around ten years ago, in a penny-drop moment during a post-show conversation at The Hen and Chickens Theatre. My cousin, a couple of years out of drama training and whose show I’d just been watching, and me, a recent Theatre Studies graduate trying to set the world ablaze with my company’s first show, were comparing notes on our respective ventures. I asked what seemed like the most pressing question for anyone mounting a production on the fringe.


“Have you managed to get any programmers in?”


Blank stare.


“You know, people who might book the show…”


Semi-comprehension. “We’re actually trying to get casting directors and agents to see it.”


Blank stare. Mine this time. The job titles seemed familiar but only from film credits.


After a brief pause and sensing my befuddlement, my cousin attempted to steer us towards some common ground. “How was your course, who did you study?”


“Oh well, you know, Forced Entertainment, The Wooster Group, Pina Bausch, DV8, that sort of thing.”


Blank stare. “Never heard of them.”


Having just finished a course seemingly run by The Forced Entertainment Fan Club with near enough every lecture somehow squeezing in a reference to Tim Etchell’s ubiquitous company, I was astonished. I stared. Blankly.


My cousin reeled off a list of directors, writers and producers who had been the stalwarts of his drama training.


Oh dear. “Who?” This was starting to get weird.


I suddenly realised that the professional world into which I’d newly arrived was at least twice as big as I’d been led to believe and that we’d both been unwittingly cast in moulds that were likely to determine the course of our respective careers.


Perhaps unsurprisingly then, I spent the next six years in the world of subsidy-dependent experimental performance; creating, curating and programming work that was too small-scale, too raw or just too off the wall to be viable – in a “making a living” kind of a way – without funding. And I loved it; the exhilarating invention, the DIY-dynamism, the scruffy warehouse shows.


Then I joined the Arts Council and found myself with a much wider “Theatre” remit. Thinking I’d better quickly re-familiarise myself with capital “T” Theatre, I went to see a play. And I loved it; the characters, the story, the set, the comfortably velvet seats. And suddenly the sums of money were bigger too. Where £10,000 had seemed like a fortune, I was now thinking of a £40,000 grant as a bare minimum for a touring show. But there was also something curious about this because the shows being produced with the highest levels of funding were generally the ones most like the shows being produced without any public funding at all in the commercial sector.


So what was the difference? Why did one mid-scale show cost tens – even hundreds – of thousands of pounds, while another turned a profit? No one, it seemed, really knew.


Step up a scale and relationships between the subsidised and commercial sectors are a lot more common with co-producing, optioning and transferring being part of the everyday practice of producing a show. This approach is something that the Arts Council is enthusiastic about but lacks the expertise – certainly I didn’t have them – to proactively support and advocate for it in the way that it does for other agendas in the arts.


This is significant because of the development role that the Arts Council plays, a large aspect of which is about making connections, championing best practice and setting the terms by which it awards funding. And so the Arts Council has not been in a position to address the separation that perpetuates between the two sectors at the small to mid scale, where the organisation arguably has the greatest influence – even when there’s little difference in the work that’s being produced.


And yet there seems to be much to gain from greater collaboration or from models that borrow the best from both worlds. This might be a commercial producer partnering with a producer in the subsidised sector to tap into regional R&D infrastructures to support the kind of extended creative process that has famously been so successful for shows like War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Or it could be someone producing profit-share shows on the London Fringe discovering that they can find favour with funders by embracing regional touring and thereby pay creative teams a professional wage. Or it could be about new ways of financing shows that allow grants and the new theatre tax break to reduce costs to the extent that a wider range of productions become viable concerns for a wider range of investors. It might even begin to shift some of the existing disparities that have been allowed to build up between the work that is produced and presented in London and that of the rest of the country. The potential benefits flow in all directions; to theatre makers in both sectors and audiences nationally.


This is what we hope will be explored in greater depth at the show business symposium at the National Theatre on 19 June. We’ve been encouraged by the enthusiasm we’ve encountered for these ideas, from our partners, our speakers and potential delegates. There is now a generation of producers with an enthusiasm for re-thinking traditional ways of working and we hope that this event will prove to be a timely opportunity to challenge preconceptions about the restrictions, riches and rigours of the commercial and subsidised sectors. We believe that bringing these sectors closer together has the potential to deliver greater artistic innovation, increased resilience, fairer pay and larger audiences and that’s the conversation we’re looking forward to on 19 June.