Originally written for Exeunt.
In the immortal, celluloid-enshrined words of a ruby-slipper-tapping Dorothy, there’s no place like home. Or at least, even if our birthplace is somewhere from which we run kicking and screaming at the first opportunity, the place we come from inevitably shapes and defines us in some way, as do all the other places we subsequently call home.
So what does our local theatre say about us or about the community it is born from? Growing up in something of a cultural grey zone whose sole theatrical offerings seemed to be incessant tours of Grease and the obligatory ABBA sing-along, my loyalties as a theatregoer were aligned to London almost by default. It is a city I have yet to actually live in, but to which I feel inextricably bound by my connection with its culture. My personal experience, which I suspect is partly down to my hometown’s relative proximity to the huge variety of theatre available in the capital, is thankfully not indicative of the state of regional theatre on the whole. But even in areas with a thriving theatre scene, how much of the work is really wedded to its surroundings?
There is, of course, an immediate flipside to this argument. Just as the dearth of roles for women is not necessarily addressed by female writers, who are often wary of confining themselves to female experience for fear of being shoved in the box labelled “feminist playwright” and never allowed back out, regionality can be shunned by artists operating outside the capital. “Regional” is a tag that risks being used to imply something limited, something insular and blinkered, perhaps even something quaintly pastoral. As Daniel Bye’s column about Northern Stage at St Stephen’s suggested, it is easy for a national theatre culture still largely centred on London to pinpoint regionality as a basis for criticism.
What Bye also proposed, however, is that we should ultimately be proud of where our theatre comes from. In his words, the programme at St Stephen’s was “marinated in its distance from the cultural centre”; whether consciously “regional” or not, work made away from London is inevitably coloured by the site of its origin, as much as London-based theatre is arguably lent a certain quality by its position in the capital. So why are we reluctant to celebrate these regional differences?
As with anything, there are startling exceptions to the picture of regional theatre that I have – admittedly very roughly – begun to sketch above. Chris Goode’s 9, for instance, programmed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the Transform Festival earlier this year, worked with local people to create a series of solo performances, crafting a piece of theatre fused to its place of origin through tangible human links. Remaining in Yorkshire, Invisible Flock’s Bring the Happy chose to investigate the concept of happiness through the very specific focus of Leeds, while their current project Sand Pilotexplores an equally specific relationship with the natural environment in Morcambe Bay. In a slightly different approach to regionality, Joel Horwood’s I ❤ Peterborough was commissioned by Eastern Angles with the brief of responding to the city of its title, a place referred to by the Arts Council as a “cultural cold spot”.
Many other examples could doubtless be cited, but what British theatres often lack is a truly regional aspect to their overall programming. Compared with the system in Germany, for example, where the dramaturgy departments of individual institutions set themes for each season based on a mix of wider social issues and subjects of particular local resonance, the UK model makes a striking contrast. Thanks to the touring structure, London is frequently either the source or the desired end point for work, generating an influx of shows geared towards the capital and casually indifferent to their location. When people complain that the theatre on offer in their local area has no relevance to them, it is easy to appreciate this perspective.
A couple of weeks ago, Lyn Gardner bravely lit the touchpaper in the ever fiery arts funding debate by suggesting that subsidy should be channelled away from major institutions and instead invested into “the bottom of the pyramid”. While this takes us into complex and thorny territory, one vital point that Gardner makes is about the participatory nature of the arts. As she stresses, for those who end up working in this industry, nearly all have found their initial point of entry through involvement of some kind, often no doubt through their local institution.
If such institutions were more attuned to their surrounding area, maybe more of those “ghost” artists that Gardner writes about would recognise the relevance of theatre to them and be able to realise their potential. A more local focus might also enable the feeding of funds into the grassroots, supporting emerging artists in the immediate region in a way that could allow major organisations and smaller companies to happily and productively co-exist.
To distil a piece of theatre down to any one element is of course reductive, ignoring the myriad influences that help to shape it. But to pursue the opposite extreme and discount location entirely is to also ignore something, something beautiful and idiosyncratic and married with a sense of community that is all too often missing from our theatres. As new artistic director Roxana Silbert’s spearheading of Birmingham REP’s centenary season recognises, theatres and artists have a vital role in serving their communities, be that through responsive programming or local engagement. And through this engagement maybe, just maybe, they can secure themselves an integral place for the future.