In times of austerity, arts funding is always one of the first areas of public spending that comes under scrutiny – and at first glance it is easy to sympathise with that view. With issues like health and wellbeing, the challenges of an ageing population, children’s services and more all on the same slate for possible cuts, it can be hard to argue for the value of spending money on the arts.
The argument can become even harder given the well documented contribution made by the arts to the national economy is well known. At the end of 2017, the government released figures showing that the creative industries sector in this country was growing at twice the rate of the UK economy, now worth almost £100bn – so can the arts really not be self-sustaining? The challenge, and it is a challenge, lies in recognising the connection between the funded sector in theatre and the clearly profitable large scale West End sector.
Put simply, the West End and Broadway together represent the top of a pyramid, but much lower down that pyramid are all of the subsidised venues, developing the actors, the directors, writers and plays that feed the industry, and from which the big successes will arise. Without funding experimentation at the bottom, the hugely successful hits that support our national economy will be lost.
Last week, the annual Tony Awards in the US made that point abundantly clear when The Ferryman, a play which started life at the funded Royal Court, picked up both the Best Play and Best Director awards. Brian Cranston won Best Actor for his role in Network which started out at the National Theatre, with Bertie Carvel also winning an acting award for Ink, which originated at the Almeida Theatre. Meanwhile, in London, the Young Vic’s production of Death Of A Salesman has just announced its West End transfer. Here in Greenwich, we are preparing to host the European premiere of musical Brooklyn in October, which may well lead to the same transfer opportunity.
Of course, there is another layer in the pyramid below these funded venues, where producers and fringe venues are working without subsidy to try out ideas at an even earlier stage. At Greenwich we spend much of our time supporting those grassroots organisations as they seek to make the first tentative steps up the ladder. Many of the companies that we have discovered playing in the capital’s smallest pub theatres are now recognised as important small-scale touring companies, some have played in New York and around the world, and all have developed or are developing their craft to the next stage.
This is why theatre funding is so crucial. Not to fund art at the highest, most commercial level, but to fund those organisations that can act as a bridge, lifting companies from the fringe into the mid-scale and generating work that can itself grow to some of the world’s most prestigious stages. Cutting the bridging organisations means closing off development routes from the bottom level, and starving the top level of material and personnel. The next leader of the Conservative Party, those ranked in opposition, and those around the country with the power to fund the arts must recognise that speculation on the bridging organisations is the only way to preserve that astonishing contribution that the arts makes to the UK economy every year.
James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre