Theatres are at the heart of our communities, but their contribution is often overlooked
The high level of turnover among ministers responsible for the arts means that theatres are often passed up as other industries benefit
There has been a major change in our theatres over recent decades, but policymakers are yet to recognise their new and substantial value.
No longer is it just about the show, although that is clearly the central part of the offer. Theatres across the country are now cultural centres with cafes, restaurants, bars and meeting spaces. In effect, the buildings themselves are now also spaces for the community, not just for the performance.
A performance is also no longer just on the stage, it can move through the auditorium, into other spaces, and literally reach out to those who wouldn’t normally consider going to see a show.
Indeed, the physical bounds of the theatre are no longer a restriction. Street theatre can be found everywhere, working to entertain, inform and educate a new and, more often than not, previously isolated audience.
Theatre is not just an add-on, it is a life-enhancing tool that we must cherish. It is also a tool that is effective in dealing with mental health issues and loneliness. It brings people together and provokes thought.
There is also the substantial economic contribution, along with the soft power and tourism applications, of our world-leading theatres in London’s West End and other metropolitan centres.
But I do not believe that the value of theatres today, or the struggles they face, has been recognised by policymakers. There has been a high level of turnover among ministers responsible for the arts, and theatres are often passed up as other industries benefit.
“Theatre is not just an add-on, it is a life-enhancing tool that we must cherish”
For example, the Government has pledged to reduce business rates for retailers, as well as extending the discount to grassroots music venues, small cinemas, and pubs. No theatres will be included, even those that are small, local and vital to their community.
Likewise, there is the welcome pledge to introduce the largest cultural capital programme in a century at £250m. Again, this will not support theatres. Although, credit where it is due, there are also pledges to invest in the arts and maintain creative sector tax reliefs. The specifics, however, still need to be worked out and the legislation delivered.
I believe that policymakers do not know the true value of theatres, nor the problems they face, because of a lack of understanding. That is why I set up the APPG on Theatre, to let Parliamentarians know how it really is, and to lobby ministers to correct the issues I set out above.
There is much that we need to do to help theatres, and there are also areas of real threat, especially with the new immigration system which may, unintentionally, limit access to labour for both on-stage and backstage roles. These issues will be key areas of focus for the group over the next few months.
I am a huge advocate for the arts, and I could talk about the value of theatres forever. But I would just add this: any live theatrical performance is unique. It doesn’t matter how many times the play has been produced, a single performance is a one-off.
The audience is a random assemblage of people from all walks of life. But when they come together, they take on a single entity which informs the actors, often unconsciously, so the performances are subtly altered.
This means that everybody has been part of an event that has never happened before and will never happen in quite the same way again. That is a major part of the power of theatre.
It is time to acknowledge that theatres are increasingly valuable. We must make sure they have the support they need.
Giles Watling is Conservative MP for Clacton and chair of the APPG for Theatre
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