Arts Council cuts will hobble regional touring, National Theatre director warns

The director of the National Theatre in London is warning that the government’s levelling-up agenda will take its toll on its touring productions and schools programmes beyond the capital.

Rufus Norris said that the decision by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in February “to redistribute Arts Council England (ACE) funding and level up access to the arts” across the country would be detrimental to the National Theatre’s work.

Norris told the Guardian: “Cutting us back because of where our postcode is will have a direct and negative effect on the nationwide work that this move is designed to address. It will have the exact opposite effect of their stated intention.”

He went on: “We receive £16.7m a year in Arts Council funding and we spend £21m a year on our activities outside London. We spend £4m more than our entire grant on our nationwide work. More than 50% of our audience in the UK is outside London. We have in-depth programmes in many places and we focus on areas of low arts engagement – Sunderland, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Salford, Wakefield. So cutting our money here will directly affect what we can do.”

Norris said the plans to cut 15% of funding from London theatres for redistribution around the country “does not take into account the complexity and the interdependence of the way the whole industry works … Our work in London subsidises the nationwide work to the tune of at least £4m a year … We will do less work nationwide because of those cuts. If we’ve shifted our priorities that way, our standing on the world stage literally and metaphorically would decrease.”

Although he spoke of his wholehearted support for increasing funding around the country and lamented “a very long historical imbalance”, he warned: “I don’t want to catastrophise the situation, but you can’t just take money out of a very, very successful model and expect it to carry on, particularly in the wake of the devastation that we’ve just been through.”

Referring to the National Theatre’s loss of almost £80m due to the pandemic, he warned that it will be a “long time before there’s any real sense of stability” within the sector.

While acknowledging the government’s enormous challenges, he said: “In the desire to address the issue of levelling up – and to be perceived to be addressing the issue of levelling up – the way that’s being done is shortsighted.”

Funding cuts could also lead to fewer risks with repertoire, he fears. The situation is all the more frustrating because the Tony Awards 2022 once again recognised the excellence of the National Theatre and UK companies, with The Lehman Trilogy – a powerful drama about the rise and fall of one of the world’s leading banks – among the prizewinners.

Norris said: “The Lehman Trilogy, which was developed here … went to the West End and … on to Broadway, and now it will come back to the West End and it will tour internationally. All this is fantastic for Brand UK.”

The National Theatre’s forthcoming regional programmes include a major tour of its critically acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an “adventure of fantasy, myth and friendship”. It will visit more than 29 towns and cities over 40 weeks, starting at the Lowry in Salford in December.

The Lowry was the first venue outside London to present War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time, among the National Theatre’s other hit shows.

Julia Fawcett, its chief executive, said: “Whilst we welcome the increased investment in regional culture, it is disappointing that this must be achieved by reducing the cultural investment in some of the country’s leading cultural organisations. A reduction in touring from the National Theatre would be hugely detrimental to the regional economy, to audiences outside of London, to the levelling-up agenda and the cultural ecology.”

The DCMS said: “We are committed to increasing access to arts and culture across the whole country. We are addressing a long-standing funding imbalance so that everyone can enjoy and take part in the arts no matter where they come from. We continue to back London’s brilliant cultural organisations and are supporting them to expand their operations beyond the capital so more communities benefit from their fantastic work.”

ACE declined to comment.

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