Feature: Last in, first out: how the arts funding crisis is crushing smaller companies

Monobox, the not-for-profit workshop and play resource which gives those at the start of their careers a path into theatre, has recently directed a request for help to the theatre community. Having survived for the last four years with no funding, they now need to afford a new home and are offering patrons the chance to choose the angle of the aid they offer: perhaps by contributing to the cost of keeping workshops open to every socio-economic background, or by sponsoring their podcast, for example. Their personal and frank breakdown of what’s needed is refreshing, but what isn’t new is the situation: a small network, lacking funding, at our mercy to continue the work they do.

And it does tend to be the smaller companies and initiatives who struggle. The smaller a company is, the less likely they’ll generate enough attention to be able to land a space as an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation, to receive a regular, set amount of funding over a period of four years. The difficulties are several: an ACE report on British theatre last year found that large organisations, of more than fifty permanent staff, tended to generate 78% of all unearned income, while on the other hand, those with fewer than ten staff generate just 1%.

There’s a greater degree of unavoidable risk for creatives working with or as part of smaller companies, too, often due to a more common expectation of unpaid labour. Eleonora Fusco, head of the Lettuce Dream Theatre Company and the writer and director of Jay, notes that she funds her company privately as she’s one of the relative few for whom this is possible, and is reluctant to take public funding away from those who aren’t in a similar position. Fusco always guarantees that at least 50% of the company’s annual budget goes to the cast and crew’s salaries, allotting the returns to them according to a system of percentage as if they were stock holders. In this way, she ensures that “The people who ‘work for me’ are not involved in the risk; they always have a base salary to fall on that is cleared and clarified when their contracts are written and signed.”

Across the UK, of course, councils are being forced to make sacrifices which are affecting companies and venues of all sizes. Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s funding, for example, has been cut by 29% as Birmingham City Council has agreed to reduce its culture budget by 25%, the city’s third major funding cut in five years, while grants for the arts awarded by Bath and North East Somerset Council have been completely abolished. For companies unable to support themselves on private donations or income, the options shrink.

When it comes to the money being spent on theatre in our country, London can seem like the start and the end of it. London-centric theatre is an institution, and we rightfully complain about this, but it’s a fact that must be dealt with; part of the very reason people spend so much money on theatre in London is that there’s the expectation that this is where the money should be spent, if you want to see theatre. We have to build a similar expectation of quality and variety of choice in the rest of the country. Crucially, what the lack of funding does to companies both big and small, in London and in the rest of the UK, is lead to timid choices in programming. Theatremakers choose what they know will be an uncontroversial, immediate draw for audiences, which is often something already familiar to them. What could benefit the most people, especially in terms of regional theatres, would be the right balance struck between work produced by the theatre supporting jobs and local interest, and presented (or touring) work linking the capital to regional theatre, forming connections and taking London shows to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see them.

One of ACE’s chief efforts to change the landscape of the arts in this country so far has been their dedication to the idea of forming geographical ‘hubs’ of culture across the nation with the grants they award, an approach outlined in their 2016 report on theatre. These hubs might not necessarily be venues, instead perhaps centres, festivals or companies, whose status as a hub for the arts will mean that the choices they make suddenly matter a lot more, aiding their community by the breaks which they offer to smaller companies.

This takes some pressure away from achieving national portfolio inclusion, especially as another important measure needed is larger venues voluntarily taking public funding cuts – which some, such as the National Theatre, the Southbank Centre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House have begun already. The National Theatre, for example, was given £1.1 million to tour its work outside of London over the next three years, but with its huge demand for tickets, high-profile, wealthy patrons, hype around productions and the gamechanger of NT Live it simply doesn’t need ACE grants like other institutions. There can be discussion over the cuts the Bristol Old Vic, conversely, will be experiencing after Bristol City Council reduces its arts funding by £38,000 (might it be an important and connected enough venue in the region that this will be a mistake?), but when it comes Punch-Drunk receiving nearly £1 million over the next three years from ACE and the inclusion of Emma Rice’s Wise Children in the portfolio before the company’s even begun, perhaps what we’re seeing is, despite the quality and scale of the work it will produce, certain people receiving help that they need less than smaller companies set up by less successful people.

It seems what has to take place is a move away from relying on ACE funding – which is additionally not reserved for theatre alone, but also libraries, museums and the like, and during a period in which sales of lottery tickets are falling. There are alternatives to Grants for Arts (such as Jerwood microbursaries, the Arcola’s opportunity for free rehearsal space for BME creatives, the Cash Flow Fund, and crowdfunding), but what Fusco emphasises is the necessity for us all to recognise our individual accountability, and to use our money to “make the machine move.” Large-scale companies and venues must work with the smaller companies, interrogating who they give breaks and payment to, and always be checking themselves.

We all have a duty to reach out to those who otherwise wouldn’t go to the theatre, and to pay those who otherwise couldn’t pursue a theatrical career. Our way to build an industry capable of supporting us with real potential is to examine ourselves for the sacrifices we can all make for the benefit of theatre. Which is always worth it.

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking

Frey Kwa Hawking is a small person, full of hate, who lives and writes in London. He likes to go to the theatre and the cinema. Sometimes they let him in. He is trans and Malaysian-Chinese. He always orders xiao long bao. Follow him on Instagram at @absentobject.