Being small is theatre's big future


As a young director in the late 1980s I was able to borrow money from a bank to produce a new play in Edinburgh, and I was very proud to be able to pay it back. I can't imagine any financial institution behaving in a similar way today if faced with a young director and writer eager to risk their money on new writing. And indeed, why should they?

So how does theatre keep risking and challenging itself in the current atmosphere of such financial austerity? It is a hard question to answer.

Anybody who has been involved in the production of a new play will know what a journey it can be. The script you thought was wonderful on day one of rehearsals can end up misfiring on stage completely – or vice versa. Theatre production is a ferociously volatile business and we can all make mistakes. But these days mistakes can cost young writers more than just their careers and they can threaten the very existence of theatres and alienate audiences in a heartbeat. As the financial pressures on theatre production get tougher, so the room for experiment diminishes. Without finance there can be no experiment, without experiment we diminish the chance of fresh discovery and the realisation of original thought – something we all strive to foster and encourage. And we must, as an art form, keep investing in the future and challenging the way we do things. Original thought can be a hard thing to champion in a world that demands precedent in everything it invests in. So we need the spaces to experiment in, and the right to fail.

Of course at Hampstead Theatre, which I help to run, we are lucky to enjoy public subsidy, born of a funding system that, unlike the more closely corporate American system, still allows us to dream and to keep our horizons broad. Business partnerships in art are a vital and important way of sustaining what we do, but they require careful and sometimes time-consuming marriages that match a particular project to a brand. Public subsidy has a broader remit of inclusivity that, in theory, guards against conservatism. This is a wonderful thing and it must be protected at all costs. The other great source of income that theatre enjoys comes through private philanthropy. This is a rare and important source of funds that must be cherished at all costs. It usually comes from individuals who genuinely want to help support the activity of theatre - with no strings attached. As long as we have these people as part of our community, then we can continue to take risks on new work.

When I took over Hampstead Theatre five years ago, it was enlightened philanthropy of this sort that enabled me to create Hampstead Downstairs, a space where experiment could be made freely in the production of new plays. A space free from formal critical scrutiny with cheap tickets and high production values. It now forms part of the vital and delicate theatre ecosystem in London and beyond which, as resources shrink, will struggle to survive. Hampstead Downstairs is a place where new writing can try itself out in front of a paying audience and make mistakes without being punished. We don't have press nights so artists can experiment in a relaxed environment that has proved conducive to creativity and has produced work that has gone onto the Edinburgh Festival and the West End, as well as onto the Main Stage at Hampstead.

But it is not only a mark of a play's success that it transfers. Hampstead Downstairs gives writers a chance to develop their ideas and to develop their craft. Of course I want to catch the next great new play but it is enough to know that Hampstead can help writers towards a great play somewhere else, even if we are not the ones to end up producing it. It is vital, if British theatre is to continue to thrive as part of a strong cultural economy, that we continue to give unconditional support where we can. That is what we try to do at Hampstead.

Every time you buy a ticket or take a risk on something unknown, at Hampstead Theatre or beyond, you become a part of that narrative. It is no accident that the most successful new British musical of the last year, Sunny Afternoon, came from the subsidised sector. That will happen again as long as we can maintain the delicate financial balance required to enable the production of this kind of work. So keep supporting wherever and however you can, and help us to create a fearless future.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive