Ian Squires, Chair of Curve Theatre, shares his thoughts on how regional theatres need to think outside their comfort zone artistically, geographically, financially and structurally.
Shoreditch, London, Christmas 1598. It is so cold the Thames is almost frozen over at London Bridge and the snow is falling heavily as a dozen men – armed with a variety of weapons – gather in the early hours of December 28th with mischief in mind. This ‘band of brothers’, united in their purpose are led by Richard Burbage, the greatest tragic actor of his day, his brother Cuthbert, and include in their number a handful of other well-known performers. Together they were better known as The Chamberlain’s Men, the most prominent acting company at the time and accompanying them this frosty night was almost certainly their star playwright, William Shakespeare. Their mission? To steal an entire theatre.What led Shakespeare and his fellow actors to this dramatic course – dismantling and removing a complete building – was a knotty and complex dispute over ownership brought to a head when the lease on the land ended. Richard Burbage, the leading actor, claimed that while the ground on which the theatre (it was actually known as ‘The Theatre’) stood was the landlord’s, the building was his, inherited from his father. Hence the dawn raid.
Successful in their mission, The Chamberlain’s Men carted away the timbers and had them stored in a riverside warehouse to await re-erection. In July 1599 the new Globe theatre opened in Southwark. Scholars say Julius Caesar may have been the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be performed there.I told this story, the story of a journey, at the first Curve board meeting I chaired in November 2016. It seemed to me that it offers a graphic and appropriate metaphor for the journey that most regional theatres are on these days, a journey that will take us – slowly – from dependence to independence (or close to it). We may never have to pick up the building and run with it but the challenge that faces us is just as real.
Curve, like many of the big regional producing theatres (‘producing’ in the sense that we commission and make our own shows as well as showcasing touring productions) is outwardly and apparently successful. We have a loyal and diverse audience; a good box office; an established reputation as a producer of musical theatre (our Christmas production of Grease – currently on tour to Dubai - was Curve’s best-selling show since the theatre opened in 2008); big touring shows such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda choosing Curve as the opening venue; vibrant youth and community schemes as well as effective education and outreach programmes. But there is a ghost at the feast and the ghost’s name is ‘Funding.’
Over the last decade public funding of the arts in general and of the major institutions in particular has been declining and none of that is surprising given the pressure on local authorities’ spending (one of the major sources of cash for many regional theatres) and on Government spending through Arts Council England. For some theatres this represents a major crisis – hence the headline. For Curve, more of a challenge.
And at this point I should declare a position. Having spent the larger part of my 40 year broadcasting career in the commercial sector, I developed particular views about public funding and how it is applied. But in spite of that I still believe – with some qualifications – in public funding for the arts. Just as I believe the state should fund school education, it should make a contribution to the maintenance and sustenance of the arts. And in that I make a special plea for theatre which has the power to help us understand our world¬ and the places we occupy in it. You have only to listen to parents and head teachers at schools with which the RSC works to appreciate the transformative power of drama.
So while ‘cuts’ ( best uttered with a pronounced sneer ) are never easy – I know of one performing company in the Midlands whose local authority grant has been reduced by 62% - we can’t say we didn’t know it was coming. Curve’s local authority, Leicester City Council, works very closely with the theatre and is hugely supportive of our work and role in the city and beyond. But they can’t magic money out of thin air. We have an equally positive and productive relationship with Arts Council England – we’re a National Portfolio Organisation and Curve represents one of ACE’s biggest investments in regional theatre – but nor does ACE exist in some parallel economy where the funding grows on trees.
Consequently regional theatres find themselves having to work even harder for the money that remains available from the public purse. We are held quite properly accountable for not only the quality of the work we produce on stage – including the commissioning of new work and the development of new artists and writers - but also for our effectiveness in the wider public agenda – with equality and diversity, with social engagement, with community outreach, with education, with health and beyond. We expect this, we warm to the task and the team at Curve sets about delivering on all fronts with energy, imagination and commitment.
We aim not to be just a Fun Palace but also to be the part of the fabric of the city and the region as a whole.Theatre at its highest level – and that’s where we aim to be – is a costly business and theatres are costly buildings to run if you are going to do it properly and that’s why we need to secure our funding for the long term.
Tempting as it might be to whisper ‘steady as she goes’, make a few judicious savings here and there (and we’re good at that too) and attempt to get by on diminishing funds, it simply doesn’t work. ‘Standing still’ and ‘getting by’ are not sea-worthy propositions. ‘Standing still’ amounts to ‘going backwards’ (or ‘down’ in the nautical analogy) and that isn’t in the plan.
Instead, what is in the plan is an ambition to create some long-term financial stability for the theatre and we believe we can do that in two ways. First by deploying the asset to its maximum potential – the asset being both the theatre and the people who work in it.
Our building offers producers extraordinary opportunities. The main theatre currently has 900 seats (emphasis there on ‘currently’), state-of-the-art technology and a gifted and skilful crew. Just about anything is possible at Curve which is why Cameron Mackintosh is bringing his new production of Miss Saigon to open at Curve this year and why we’re able to get the rights to mount a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in the autumn.
‘Deploying the asset’ doesn’t just mean mounting shows in Leicester and then putting them back in the cupboard. It means taking them far and wide. Curve’s chief executive Chris Stafford, working with the Artistic Director Nikolai Foster, has created a touring strategy which means that many of our shows have a long and potentially profitable afterlife. Grease, as I described, is on stage in Dubai as I write. Legally Blonde travelled to South Korea, Roald Dahl’s The Witches opened in Hong Kong before coming back to Leicester.
And co-production – working with other theatres – enables us to share costs on big dramas with high-profile casts. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (staged in our 300-seat theatre) and Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw (in the 900 seater) were co-produced with Birmingham Rep and Theatre Royal Bath respectively (and both directed by our own Nikolai Foster). Ravi Shankar’s opera Sukanya is a three-way co-production between Curve, the Royal Opera and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and premiered at Curve in May.
And as well as the financial benefits, touring and co-production carry the Curve brand beyond the city limits. Our reputation as a theatre that can deliver ambitious projects grows and more producers want to come and work with us. A recent email from Chris Stafford, our chief executive, tells me that 12,800 people saw a Curve show in Dubai, Edinburgh, Kingston or Leicester. That’s the power of touring.
The second way is through fundraising. ‘Fundraising’ is a word that can make the heart sink. It’s probably why so many dress it up with the euphemism ‘Development’ to banish all thoughts of flag-days and tin-shaking on street corners. I hope our approach is more strategic than that. We’ve established a dedicated team of trustees and members of the senior management to devise an initial three-year plan for fundraising. We know how hard this work is but we also know it can be rewarding. The wide spectrum of work undertaken by theatres offers opportunities to businesses and organisations keen to play their parts – and be seen to play their parts – in the community and to be associated with work of the highest calibre.
Regional theatre has to be prepared to change its approach to meet the future, coming at us as it is at the speed of light. As well as changing the way in which we approach theatre-making and the way we set about raising money, we have to look hard at our own roles as trustees and board members.
A New York-based colleague on the RSC board explained to me recently how it wasn’t ‘uncommon’ in the States to find arts organisations with more than a hundred names listed as being on the ‘board’. Equally it would be not ‘uncommon’ to find that board members also made significant financial donations to their institutions.
By and large we do things differently in the UK. Regional theatre boards I have known have been made up of genuine fans and followers, those who bring a particular skill (often financial or legal), those who presence creates strategic alliances (or may do) across a city or region and those who just want to help.
Whatever reasons bring us as individuals around that board table the new order means that each of us has to work harder than ever before to bring into play new networks, new contacts, new friends, and new supporters. We need that to help create the long-term alliances that will see us through not just the next three years but beyond and to give us the ability to meet ever-changing circumstances more robustly than in the past.
If only Shakespeare and his mates had thought about changing circumstances when they up-rooted that theatre. The original had a tiled roof but – funding the new Globe themselves – the actors had to save some money when they re-built it in Southwark so opted for thatch instead. One afternoon in June 1613, during a performance of the play we now know as Henry VIII, a spark from a ‘prop’ canon landed in the thatch and smouldered away until flames reduced the entire building to the ground. Eye-witnesses said it took less than an hour. Fortunately no one was hurt but I’m off to check the roof just the same.
Ian Squires was appointed Chairman of the Board of Curve in August 2016. Prior to that he chaired the board of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for eight years helping to oversee the theatre’s redevelopment and reopening in 2013. He was also a board member of the Birmingham Hippodrome for four years until 2009. In 2014, he joined the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company and in 2015 became a trustee of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and of Belarus Free Theatre.
In his professional life, Squires had a 42 year career as a journalist and broadcaster. Beginning his career in the BBC’s current affairs department, he also worked in music and arts programming. He produced the television première of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem from New York City and was executive producer of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, a programme that won a BAFTA and International Emmy. He also shared a BAFTA Award with the choreographer Gillian Lynne for their television ballet A Simple Man, celebrating the centenary of the artist L. S. Lowry. Following the success of that programme, Squires became Head of Network Television at the BBC in Manchester.
In 2009, he returned to work in London as a controller in the ITV network commissioning team working in news and current affairs. His slate of programmes included the weekly Tonight, The Agenda and the investigative programme Exposure which lifted the veil on the Jimmy Savile scandal. Programmes he commissioned won awards from BAFTA and the Royal Television Society, and in the United States an International Emmy and a prestigious Peabody Award.