New work overtakes revivals in British theatre repertoire

According to an extensive new survey, British theatre has enjoyed a strong performance from new musicals and pantomimes, stage adaptations of novels, and a growth in theatre for children, despite the economic downturn.

The report results from analysis by the British Theatre Consortium, UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre of the programmes of 273 auditoria, across the subsidised and commercial sectors, in 2013. It is by far the most comprehensive survey of theatre repertoire ever undertaken and its authors include WGGB Theatre Co-Chair and former President David Edgar and WGGB member Dan Rebellato.

Earlier this year, sections of the report were published, which showed:

• For the first time since records began, new work had overtaken revivals in the British theatre repertoire. New work constituted 59% of all productions, 63% of all seats sold, 64% of all performances and 66% of box office income.

• However, despite recent West End successes for plays like Posh by Laura Wade, Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood and Enron by Lucy Prebble only 31% of new plays in 2013 were written by women. Women’s plays are given fewer performances, are presented in smaller theatres and earn less money.

• Meanwhile, London continues to outstrip the rest of the country, in terms of numbers of performances (46% of the UK total), attendances (54%) and box office income (66%).

The full report contains a number of new findings:

• Unlike plays, only 31% of musicals are new, but they run for longer (representing 64% of performances) and win more attendances (68%). Newly-scripted pantomimes also outperform old ones.

• A quarter of new plays are adaptations (mostly of novels). However, 86% of those adaptations are newly-written.

• New children’s theatre is booming. For every 10 plays written for adults, there are now six plays written for children and young people.

The report’s conclusions include:

“Despite the economic downturn of 2008, UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre members report that audience numbers and levels of income have proved remarkably resilient”.

“For the first time since records began, new work and new writing have overtaken revivals in the British theatre repertoire. This is a success story for British playwrights and the makers of new work, but it is also for the artistic directors who have chosen to programme new work and for the Arts Council, for whom new writing has almost always been a priority”.

“Some commentators criticise the number of adaptations on British stages (20% of all plays), but the fact that 86% of those are new is to be welcomed, as is the fact that 61% of translations are also new”.

“The benefits of the increase in new work are unequally distributed. Women playwrights do worse than male playwrights overall, and particularly in those forms where theatres have a choice about who to commission, like translations and adaptations. And British theatre production and resources remain stubbornly concentrated in London and the south east”.

“It is clear from the amount of work that starts in the subsidised sector – and even more from the amount of work that stays there – that what we have called straight theatre would hardly exist without public funding. At the same time, Cameron Mackintosh now argues that musicals too are best developed in the public sector. London’s hugely successful commercial sector sits on top of a pyramid of subsidy. Without that, it would collapse”.

Commenting on the report. WGGB General Secretary Bernie Corbett said: “It is a huge achievement by writers, councils and governments, working together, to have made new writing the centre of vitality of our world-beating theatre. But the past five years have seen a horrific axe swinging over the Arts Council – with perhaps worse to come – and as Fin Kennedy’s In Battalions project made starkly clear, the baleful results are beginning to show through. The new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, lists cinema and music as his interests in Who’s Who. Let us hope, for all our sakes, that he adds theatre in the next edition.”

The British Theatre Consortium’s intention is to make the British Theatre Repertoire report an annual event.

The report will be the centre of discussions at WGGB’s next annual Literary Managers’ Forum.