The belief that theatre is mostly London-centric is not new. If the topic is a garden covered in snow, it most definitely has been trampled into slush. But it does not stop me getting frustrated as a North-West-based theatre maker, that on a popular arts website as I write this, there are 179 opportunities in London and only 19 in the North West. I get frustrated that in 2011 there were 30 Arts Council England projects scrapped in the North West region alone, but only 33 in the whole of the South (outside London). I get frustrated that I travel to London to audition for roles that are in northern theatres. And I get hugely frustrated that anything outside London is given the name ‘regional’ theatre as if it’s not good enough to be considered nationally.
But does any of that actually mean that making theatre in the North West is difficult?
Why do we ‘do’ theatre? It isn’t for the money. It’s not for fame. It’s not for the job benefits. For me, it’s to tell stories, to entertain and stimulate a group of people. Do I need the help of a London agency to do that? No. Do I need ACE funding? No. Do I need someone to create an opportunity for me to get involved in? No. We can make theatre ourselves. Anyone with an idea and an audience can create a piece of theatre. Anywhere in the country.
But I’ve touched upon something there – audience. With less funding we need an audience who will pay. I think this is the North’s biggest battle. London has a theatre community – from the tourist ogling at the West End, the fringe enthusiast at 503, or the moneyed supporter of new writing at the Court, London has an audience. It was argued by Andrew Haydon and Ramin Gray at Theatre 503’s All Change festival, that London attracts (and thus mostly panders to) a “consumerist” audience. Therefore the work created is easy to swallow and relatively unstimulating. Although I listened intently and with great interest to their pains, my empathy was significantly lacking. They may not have their ideal audience, but at least people want to see their work.
On a Friday evening, The Royal Exchange in Manchester struggles to sell out. In the past three years, I have seen the top tier of the auditorium open once. Neil Darlinson, ACE’s Acting Head of Theatre, stated: “The further north you go, the more reliant on the public sector it gets”. There doesn’t seem to be an audience for North West theatre. This issue comes right down to the grass roots – it’s not just the main houses which are struggling, grass roots theatre is struggling too.
So what’s to be done? Is it fair to bemoan this situation? If a company spends four weeks in rehearsals, invests their hard earned money and receives nothing in return, are they entitled to bemoan a lack of interest? Or should they accept that North West audiences want something different?
It’s ridiculous to say there are no people in the North West who will pay to watch good theatre. We’re just not giving them what they want. Instead of regurgitating Miller, Churchill and Pinter, let’s do something new, fresh and exciting. Let’s shake things up. Let’s stage new writing. Let’s get out of theatres and into the streets. Let’s listen to what the people want and give it to them better than they ever could have imagined.
Essentially, let’s stop bemoaning North West difficulties. The agents don’t want to come yet. Neither do the reviewers. And the government don’t see the North as financially equal to the South. So let’s prove them wrong. Let’s make theatre that has people cheering/crying/laughing so loud in the North, that they can hear it in the South. Because if we do that, then the agents, reviewers and funders will think twice about staying only in London. Making theatre isn’t hard in the North West, we just need to do something invigorating.
That’s what we’ve tried to do at Fresh Loaf Productions. We stage film and theatre that is challenging and thought-provoking, bold and brave. Our upcoming monologue, Hand Over Fist (written by Dave Florez) is the story of how a woman with Alzheimer’s tries to remember her first love. Yes, it’s deeply moving, but it’s also funny, light hearted and, at times, terribly crude. Because an audience doesn’t want to be lectured, they want to be entertained. And from The Stone Roses to Oasis, hasn’t the North proved we can entertain better than anywhere else in the world?
Joe Mellor is an actor and director with Fresh Loaf Productions in Manchester. He is currently directing Hand Over Fist as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival (2-4 July at Town Hall Tavern).
Photo: The Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo (c) The University of Salford under a Creative Commons Licence from Flickr.