I spent last night talking to two fellow theatre makers and fellow graduates of LISPA. The conversation was one I have become used to. Which country are you moving to? One was relocating to Vienna in a couple of weeks, the other has been working in Copenhagen and is looking to move there full time. Last week the conversations covered moves to Dublin, Edinburgh, Cardiff, a performer who’s already moved to Barcelona and a director who’s relocated to Hong Kong. England is haemorrhaging artists. LISPA itself is moving to Berlin – due to prohibitive student visa requirements imposed by the Tories last time round. the International School of Corporeal Mime relocated from London to the States last year for similar reasons. In the space of two years London has gone from a powerhouse of international physical theatre training to a back water.
Artists are streaming out of England like rats from a sinking ship. And well they might. England is currently facing a perfect storm of hostile conditions for the Arts. Funding has been decimated over the last decade – first by the Olympics and then by the Tory austerity measures. These provided a double whammy of pain for the arts – first through direct funding cuts to the arts council which have seen them loose over a 1/3 of their budget. And then indirectly through cuts to local council budgets which have seen devastating cuts across the country with up to 100% cuts in arts spending in some areas, as local councils have been hard pushed to pay for even essential services.
The government’s knee jerk reaction to immigration which has made it much harder for internationals to enter the UK on Student Visas and added much tougher reporting and registering burdens on institutions catering to international students – has made it almost impossible to run international drama schools in the country. Unless they massively increase their fees to cover the new costs. For schools interested in attracting students from the political south these increases in fees are completely prohibitive. LISPA experimented running their course in 6 month blocks to allow their students to come into the country on tourist visas – but ultimately that was never going to be a long term solution.
The touring model of theatre in this country is currently broken. As Max Stafford-Clark reported in today’s Guardian and as I’ve written about previously here, the touring model is neither economically or artistically working. There is insufficient money to develop the work in the first place. Once it is developed there is insufficient resources in the regional venues to support it or maintain their audience. Shoe-string shows are playing to dwindling audiences and no one is being fulfilled by the experience – be it the artists, the companies or the audiences. I know of at least one mid-scale touring company who have all but given up on UK touring and now almost exclusively earn their living from international work. Many more are planning to follow suit.
Finally the coup de grace is the ongoing assault on the capital from the regions. Instead of arguing for an increase in overall funding – which we desperately need – the English funding debate has sunk into a politics of ressentiment, with the underfunded regions pointing their finger at the underfunded capital and demanding more. But with not enough to go round, or even enough to support one centre of theatrical excellence, spreading the money more thinly is in no one’s best interests. Add to that the the ridiculous cost of living in London and the housing crisis and we can see how the problem is fast developing into a catastrophe. Yet for any of those who thought that crippling the capital would be in the best interest of the regions their hopes have been shattered. Ultimately, as I warned here, for most artists of an international standing – the choice of where to make work was never between London or lesser English cities, but between London and other international capitals. As London increasingly looses its international competitiveness, it’s the whole of England that’s suffering as artists and organisations choose to give up on the country altogether.
I’m usually the optimist, and it goes against every grain of ‘the show must go on’ ethos we live in to say it, but maybe we should just let the sun set on English Theatre. I can’t imagine how we’re going to revive it at this stage. The top branches of the tree are still green, but the roots, which haven’t been adequately watered for near to a decade, are all but dead. And without that new life and work coming up from the bottom it’s only a matter of time till the whole tree dies. Though by the time we see the rot take hold at the top of the tree, and hear the public outcry and see the politicians ringing their hands, it will be far far too late to save it. The good news is that with increasing powers – and arts budgets – devolved to the regional powers in the UK we don’t have to leave the UK to escape the rot of England. And at least while we’re still part of the EU it is very easy for us to relocate to one of the many European countries which still support the arts. So however much I long to hear an artistic conversation about anything other than relocating – the climate is so hostile in England I fully understand why so many people are joining the exodus. Perhaps its time to join them. One thing is clear. If we want to save English theatre something needs to be done about it, and done about it right now.
This is only my perspective – I’d love to hear from other people. Are you planning to relocate? Or maybe you have some suggestions for what could be done to revive English Theatre? Or perhaps you are currently having a very positive experience of making theatre in England. Either way I’d love to read your comments below.