Stage Right: Crisis and Recovery in British Contemporary Mainstream Theatre

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Arts and Artists. By: Kingston, Jeremy. While, on the stage of the image, London struts its stuff as the theatre capital of the world, behind the scenes the situation is more complicated. Myths have a magical way of turning difficult situations into simple realities — they both explain and justify social institutions, and bring comfort to the insecure by simplifying rapidly changing situations. Whether partly true, or completely false, they create powerful stories out of confused and complex experiences.


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At the deepest level, everyone needs myths to structure their understanding of the world. While the concept of myth is central to understanding the political economy of theatre, it is best understood as a contested area, a place where the balance of power and belief change over time, and where political battles are reproduced on a symbolic level. And, because myth is based on our deepest beliefs, it usually poses the question of values — especially in the field of culture. The idea of a West End deep in decline is familiar to anyone who reads the arts pages of the broadsheet newspapers.

For while in the s commerce was seen as the enemy — a hegemony of theatre barons whose cartels dominated the industry — it is now more likely to be seen as a hapless victim, suffering a bad bout of economic pressure.

Whether driven out of business by rising costs or merely swimming with the market tide, the commercial sector looks like a risky business, inherently unstable, an endangered species crying out for state aid. In effect, it gives a picture of a nation in which decline is a powerful motif.

Under Thatcher, in a decade devoted to praising market values, straight commercial theatre has collapsed. Lame ducks have come home to roost. This image of the West End is one of those cultural myths that are based firmly on reality. While 20 years ago there might have been two dozen serious plays put on by the commercial sector in central London, by the mids the number had shrunk to a handful.

Not only is the number of new plays produced by private enterprise down, but their place has been taken by plays tried out in the subsidised sector and then brought into the West End. This has meant the loss of the bourgeois play — middle-class, middle-brow and middle-English — though not of bourgeois audiences. Yet, real as this decline is, does it matter? One thing about commerce is certain — you can rely on it to seek out the punters.

In this perspective, the fall of the bourgeois play is balanced by the rise of the popular musical, which has tempted new audiences, including much larger working-class audiences, into the theatre. This development challenges the assumptions on which the myth of a declining West End is based; the divide between serious play and popular musical assumes much less importance — what matters is not the form of the drama but the politics of its aesthetics.

Thus the rise and rise of the mega-musical, which occurred in the s, is a good example of Enterprise Culture. By , there were 21 musicals in theatreland. Every year some 16, live performances are seen by 11 million spectators, most of whom see a musical. For most people in the arts community, which is politically liberal, the success of this part of the commercial sector is an embarrassment.

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Because the triumph of the popular musical is so blatantly Thatcherite, it seems naff to celebrate it. Such a strategy of exclusion is not only highly artificial but also depends on out-moded ideas about the difference between high art and popular culture. Where, in terms of everyday experience, many people now enjoy both high and pop culture — Keats and Dylan, opera and football, Beethoven and Brookside — some commentators have been slow to acknowledge this.

Perhaps the myth of the decline of the West End is so comforting to middle-class prejudice that not even the spectacular triumph of the musical can touch it. How much harder it is to admit that, in the s, the idea of working-class theatre is less likely to have much to do with Joan Littlewood or John McGrath, and may have more to do with the Lloyd Webber and Willy Russell, whose Blood Brothers shows how a critique of Thatcherism can go hand in hand with catchy tunes. When the idea of extravagance becomes a popular aesthetic, it challenges traditional ideas about cultural values.

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The much derided musical is nothing more nor less than an example of postmodern aesthetics, a profitable meeting of melodrama and pop. Yet it is unwise to believe in too rigid a division between the commercial and the subsidised. First, because this simplifies a complex situation for example, membership of the strong Society of London Theatre includes nine publicly-funded theatres , and, second, because this division is less strong in practice than in the realm of ideas.

While Lloyd Webber symbolises the triumphalism of Enterprise Culture — he composed the Tory campaign theme in — the myths of subsidised sector hark back to a different tradition, that of the s Welfare State, with its ideology of giving people what was deemed to be good for them. The foundation myth of the Arts Council — and of the state-subsidised theatre it funds — was a mixture of cultural values derived from Matthew Arnold and John Maynard Keynes: it claimed the artistic high ground; it supported good causes in the national interest and it aspired to moral seriousness. This led to contradictions as those who favoured quality were accused of elitism and those who wanted a wider spread of provision were condemned as populists.

This ideal of subsidy survived fierce arguments about the nature of its mission for more than 30 years. What has happened since the Arts Council was founded in is that successive economic crises have meant an increasing divergence between the myth and what actually happens on the ground. Once funded by the state whether through the Arts Council or local government , economic necessity has forced subsidised theatre to rely more and more on marketing and, during the Thatcher years, on business sponsorship.

As a result, most theatres now get less than half their total funds from subsidy, the rest coming from box office, marketing and sponsorship. Thus, in the s, a mixture of government policy and economic recession changed the entire theatre system. In what looks like a parody of the idea of the casino economy, the National Lottery is now held up as the only hope for expanded state funding. Since the RSC and NT get about half the annual Arts Council grant to drama, there remains a bias towards the big and the national as opposed to the small and the regional. Indeed, the Conservative policy of rate-capping local authorities has hit regional theatres badly since their funding is not mandatory.

This tends to fluctuate, however, since business sponsorship is notoriously recession-prone. While only the most militant of right-wing libertarians argue for the abolition of all state subsidy, government funding is not immune from paradox-infused criticism. This then leads to the charge that such easy entertainment could equally well be put on by the private sector. Moreover, in view of mutterings that subsidy is a hand-out, state- funded theatres now have better box office statistics than the commercial sector Society of London Theatre, n. What is certain is that the subsidised sector can no longer claim, as it once did, the cultural high ground.

A postmodern relativism — a slackening of boundaries — has touched the subsidised sector as well as the commercial. Nor has the division between a conservative mainstream and a radical fringe survived the new economic climate. Such changes were acknowledged when in The British Theatre Directory admitted it could no longer maintain the distinction between mainstream and alternative; a year later, Time Out replaced its division of listings into West End and Fringe by a tripartite West End, Off-West End and Fringe classification.

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