Historically, private patronage has played an important role in the evolution of British theatre. Back in the 16th century, where our modern day theatre holds its roots; royalty, aristocracy and well-to-do merchants would publicly patronise the arts in order to publicise their wealth and integrate themselves into the fabric of fashionable culture. Were it not for individuals such as Lord Buckingham, Philip Henslowe and of course Queen Elizabeth I (who famously supported the career of the Bard himself) the theatre as we know it today would be a very different place.
Times have, naturally, moved on since the days when royal patents and bawdy court performances were all that kept our country’s thespians from the gates of debtors prison. Nowadays most theatres operate under a system of hybridised funding; raising money via a combination of box office sales and government grants, as well as through corporate/private patronage. However, with the government threatening to severely cut the Arts budget by 2012, could it be possible that the theatre industry may once again need to rely heavily on the generosity of its benefactors in order to escape financial crisis?
I spoke to Martin Prendergast, Head of Corporate Development at the National Theatre, to find out his opinion on the future of British theatre.
First, I asked Martin about the necessity of government funding. Why does the National Theatre need ACE (Arts Council of England) grants at all? Surely a large institution such as the National must take a great deal of revenue through box office sales alone?
“We do”, he assured me, “70% of our annual income is made within the theatre itself. However, ACE funding and private benefactors are crucial to the success of the National because they enable our education, touring and amplification programmes. This support allows us to take artistic risks. Look at War Horse for example…”
People forget that War Horse, now an extremely famous and lucrative production, started life as a relatively unknown short story by Michael Morpurgo, a children’s author who, when he first heard about the NT’s plans for a stage adaptation, purportedly exclaimed; “they must be mad!” The production was developed over a number of months in the NT Studio, and upon opening quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed box office hits in the theatre’s history.
“War Horse is one of the most successful plays that the National Theatre has ever produced,” Martin continued, “however at the time of investment it was a gamble. Only with our current level of financial support does the National have the freedom to take those kinds of risks.”
The NT Studio is, without doubt, a wonderful example of the personal impact that the National’s patrons have on this country’s cultural wealth. Housed in a concrete block in Waterloo, the Studio is an ideas factory in which emerging writers and directors are given the space to experiment, whilst receiving a bursary.
Writing in 2005, dramatist Nicholas Wright (of the His Dark Materials Trilogy) commented that; “More and more, the National is creating shows that wouldn’t otherwise have existed: shows that have as their starting-point a theme, that then embarks on a journey of exploration in the Studio.” Described by Gregory Burke as “The MI5 of theatre”, the Studio directors keep a keen eye on young talent, visiting regional productions and The Edinburgh Fringe in order to spot emerging artists. Those who are invited to work there are given the time and the resources to develop their ideas.
I asked Martin if the arts cuts posed a threat to the National’s famous commitment to new work. “Absolutely not,” he assured me, “the National has always aimed to strike a balance between smaller scale productions, such as the work that is produced in the Cottesloe Theatre, and larger shows such as Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, which will preview in the Olivier next year. This balance is a vital part of the National’s ethos and will not be changing.”
This is hugely encouraging news for all young thespians hoping to expand their careers over the next few years. However the fact remains that with cuts looming, the National is going to have to depend more on its private benefactors than ever before if it is to maintain a constant level of support for experimental theatre. Fortunately it appears that this is not a challenge it feels it cannot overcome.
Recent initiatives such as National Theatre Live, for example, have enabled the theatre to open its productions to a much wider range of customers. These schemes may prove to be crucial to the future development of the theatre. I ask Martin about the concept behind National Theatre Live, which streams live performances from National’s Olivier and Lyttelton theatres into participating cinemas across the globe. “I think it’s a very interesting evolution of the art form,” he told me. “It’s not theatre, but its not cinema either, it’s something new. People enjoy it because it allows them to experience some of the excitement of National Theatre productions in their home towns.”
Does he think it will ever serve as a replacement for the real thing? “No, it’s not quite the same as coming to the National to see a play, but like I say it’s a nice mixture of the two genres. With seven cameras focused on the performance, all in high definition, National Theatre Live combines the feeling of excitement that comes with live performance, with the easy accessibility of cinema.”
By expanding their potential audience in this way the National will introduce a whole new group of prospective theatre-goers to their productions. The project has already been a huge success.
National Theatre Live would not have been possible were it not for the sponsorship of Aviva, just one of many benefactors whom Martin and the development team work with in order to ensure that the National has the financial freedom to remain a fundamentally artistic institution whilst operating as a successful business. In exchange for their support, companies like Aviva receive unique branding rights, as well as access to exclusive events at which they can entertain their clients.
This is the face of modern day patronage. Whilst the benefactors themselves may have changed from Royalty to large corporations, the principle has stayed the same. Investing in the arts, on both a commercial and a personal scale, remains a brilliant way to advertise oneself as successful, charitable and cultured. And it is fortunate for us groundlings, who benefit hugely from the results of these investments, that this is so.