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Centre Stage: the future of London’s smaller theatres

In his second guest blog for Everything Theatre, London Assembly Member Tom Copley discusses the recently published Centre Stage report, which looks at how to protect the capital’s smaller theatres.

Beyond the bright lights of the West End, London is home to more than 100 small theatres. How are these smaller venues faring in these challenging times? And what should be done to ensure they continue to survive?

When people think of London’s theatres, they often focus just on the bright lights and cavernous stages of the West End. But in fact there are almost 200 theatres scattered all across the capital, of which 105 are smaller venues with up to 300 seats.

These venues play a vital part in the theatrical ecosystem of the capital and the UK as whole. However they face worrying times. Many are insecure about their financial future or fear their premises being sold to developers. Most are in need of repair, but haven’t yet found the money to cover the costs.

I have spent six months looking into the issue and our new London Assembly report Centre Stage shows the scale of problems faced by the capital’s small theatres. It also sets out ideas to help them and calls on the Mayor Boris Johnson and others to play their part to secure their future.

For our investigation, on behalf of the Assembly’s Economy Committee, we concentrated on small theatres because they are often overlooked. These highly diverse venues– including everything from a pub theatre to a converted church – are the places where actors, producers and directors can hone their skills, and where many a household name was given their first job.

They spawn productions that can later move onto world-famous stages or our television screens, as well as offering a broader mix of shows than is possible in larger commercial venues. They also bring visitors and money into areas that might otherwise quieten down when workers head home.

However the combined pressures of a struggling economy and reduced public spending are putting the future of these venues at risk.

Our survey of 55 small theatres and 10 larger theatres or production companies, found almost half feel insecure about their financial future, with 20 per cent being ‘very insecure’.

A large number of these venues may be at risk of being closed if new or existing owners want to change the use of the buildings. Thirty four per cent of theatre managers surveyed said their venues are at risk of sale in the foreseeable future and 40 per cent fear their theatre being converted by developers.

The quality of venues also presents problems. Three quarters of small venues surveyed need to significantly upgrade or repair their buildings but 93 per cent have yet to raise the money to carry out the work.

Many venues are struggling to attract enough audiences to bring in the money they need and attracting tourists is a particular challenge. With limited resources and staffing, marketing and promotion is difficult. Yet, we think these smaller theatres could be a fantastic attraction for tourists from across the UK and overseas.

As the owner of a venue told us: “We don’t have to be a well-kept secret!”.

That is why we have created a tube map showing the location of many of London’s smaller venues. We also call on the Mayor to appoint a new ambassador for small theatres to bring the sector together and implement recommendations in our action plan.

We think the Visit London website could be broadened out to include smaller theatres and GLA festivals used to boost fringe venues.

Tube, rail and tram stations also often have outdated posters on display or empty advertising hoardings. Why not enable smaller venues to use these to promote local productions?

The Greater London Authority should also consider setting up a new fund to help theatres, drawing in philanthropic support, which would raise money for theatre repairs and upgrades.

Theatres themselves should look at whether changes to planning laws could help protect them from development by becoming community assets. They could also explore joint marketing ideas with other similar venues to pool resources and increase their potential audiences.

And it is up to society as a whole to open up its doors to theatre. What about allowing groups to rehearse in empty buildings or shops? Why can’t City Hall provide a space for theatrical organisations to rehearse and perform?

When times are hard, it can be easy to overlook the importance and value of our theatres to our wider culture. It would be a terrible loss to the capital if these venues were allowed to disappear.

That is why we want the Mayor and others to take up our call to action and ensure London’s fringe venues can survive and thrive in the years ahead.

Have you read the report? What do you think? Post your messages of support for your local small theatre here!e

About Everything Theatre

Everything Theatre
Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.