theatre seats

Theatre funding crisis – ‘don’t blame the playwrights’ 

The New Year has heralded a raft of bad news for the theatre sector in the UK. Severe financial pressures on local authorities have led to announcements like that by Suffolk County Council, of its plans to remove core funding for arts and culture, resulting in venues like Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre facing the complete axing of county funding.

As an increasing number of local councils face bankruptcy, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead came under scrutiny recently as no cultural funds appear in the next budget. In Nottingham, grants to the Playhouse theatre are in doubt from April. Late last year a local arts leader in Birmingham complained the city council “doesn’t have a clear cultural strategy”, three months after the council issued a section 114 notice, signalling it cannot balance its budget without help.

After more than a decade of central Government cuts to local authority spending – dating back to the austerity era from 2010 – the squeeze felt by theatres and other arts venues at a local level has been compounded by a more recent overhaul to arts funding at national level, which WGGB warned would be devastating to new playwriting. Some theatres – such as the Hampstead, Gate, Stockroom and Donmar –  saw their funding cut entirely, following the Arts Council England announcement in late 2022.

The theatre sector was acutely hit by the pandemic lockdowns when venues were forced to close for many months, and this has been followed by a cost-of-living crisis, and changes in audience behaviour.

Lack of funds is leading to more risk-averse programming too, including by theatres such as the Royal Court which in its most recent annual report stated that “the business model which has supported the right to fail alongside success is no longer sustainable”.

In such a challenging and existential time for the sector it is also deeply concerning that by publicly blaming specific productions for financial losses, playwrights and other creatives are being implicitly and unfairly scapegoated. Hampstead Theatre’s latest annual report singled out two individual productions as contributing to large-scale financial losses, rather than taking larger, institutional responsibility for budgeting, programming and other operational decisions. Claims of complete critical failure and poor reviews were not only inaccurate (with both productions receiving three and four star reviews in some publications), they were entirely inappropriate.

In the light of these worrying recent developments, WGGB General Secretary Ellie Peers said:

“Theatres are struggling, of that there is no doubt, but any attempt to blame playwrights and other artists is unfair and in fact counter-productive – they are the lifeblood of our world-renowned theatre sector, which would not exist without them.

“Instead the wider theatre sector must work together and demand from Government that they invest in our valuable theatre ecology and the creative workforce that powers it.

“These are issues high on our agenda in our lobbying work, particularly in the run-up to a General Election; and in our continued negotiations and conversations with individual theatres and their management bodies.”

WGGB is currently surveying commissioned playwrights (who have received a commission in the past five years) to inform our theatre negotiations, lobbying and campaigning work. Your responses are vital – please fill in and share our short survey to drive our work in this area. Fill in the survey here