Disappearing Act

Jul 30 2023 | By More

Scottish producing theatre in existential danger

Scotland’s producing theatre sector, which includes the Traverse and the Lyceum, is in imminent danger of collapse unless it can take collective action on a number of different fronts, according to a major new report.

The report, Disappearing Act?, recommends a federal approach to future working; the creation of a new company to exploit shows that have hit potential, cross-venue memberships, shared services and a root and branch examination of the “confused and contradictory landscape of Intellectual Property across Scotland and the UK”.

The six commissioning theatres behind Disappearing Act?

Disappearing Act? was commissioned in 2022 by Scotland’s six independent producing houses: the two Edinburgh theatres with Glasgow’s Tron and Citizens, as well as Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Dundee Rep. Covering the period from 2017 it examines the six venues’ output and income in the years before Covid and makes five suggestions for future working.

This “data-led review and recommendations for urgent actions to safeguard a credible producing theatre sector in Scotland” was researched and written by independent analysts Data Culture Change.

It also took into account theatre-going across Scotland, with some 40% of all Scottish households attending the theatre every year. However, most only attend once a year, with the majority of theatre trips made by a small number of people who go many times. Furthermore, only 15% of theatre seen in Scotland is made here.

A major concern is that despite staging an impressive number of productions and, on average, slightly more performances than a cohort of similar English producing theatres, the six recorded average ticket sales and revenue substantially below the English benchmark.

No change is not an option

This has been made worse by lack of growth in earned income, standstill government funding and considerable increases in major costs, from utilities to wage bills. The negative impact of Covid has been broad and deep. Some audiences have been slow to return and a sizeable proportion of the ‘core’ frequent audience appears to have been lost.

The report recommends that “No change is not an option” for the future of the producing theatre sector. “The six independent producing theatres are facing a perfect storm. To reduce expenditure further, they can only reduce the work they are doing: which would mean less support for artist development, a reduction in community and education work and a reduction in the number and/or quality of productions.

“The impact of these cuts would be to increase the inequity in the sector, reduce the talent pipeline and make return on investment in theatre made in Scotland still harder to achieve. It would be unsurprising to see audiences turn in even greater numbers to imported touring productions. With both increased costs and reduced income, the future of theatres would be at risk.”

Way forward

The way to get out of this downward spiral – of reducing costs by cutting shows and reducing quality with a consequent reduction in income – is for the six venues to work together, according to the report, which recommends that they commit to taking a federal approach to future working.

“Each theatre would retain its autonomy and decision-making authority while also working towards shared goals and objectives. They will work more closely to share resources, exchange best practices, and collaborate on joint projects or initiatives.

“A federal approach will allow each organisation to leverage their individual strengths and resources while also benefiting from the collective expertise and resources of their peers.

“This notion of working federally underpins all our recommendations. If delivered effectively, it will strengthen the theatre sector in Scotland as a whole, foster collaboration and innovation, and support the development of new audiences and artistic talent.”

new production company

The major plank in this strategy is to create a new production company that will support and co-produce popular shows that are expected to tour within Scotland and then go on for further commercial exploitation in other parts of the UK and internationally.

Currently, big hit shows which transfer to London’s West End, such as Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) which originated with the Tron, are not returning that investment to the originating theatre.

A company in which the six venues are shareholders and have voting rights on the board, would be nimble enough to both work with the venues from the outset to create new work and be able to pick hits, refinance them and send them off, fit to tour across the UK, hit West End or tour internationally.

A second idea is to provide an overarching Scottish Theatre membership scheme that would offer benefits at all six theatres as well as the ‘home venue’ of the member.

The paper also makes strong points about staffing across all of the venues, where moral is low among front of house staff and there is a significant skills drain to competing sectors such as the film from the back-stage professionals.

complicated issues

Disappearing Act? identifies three more complicated issues which need addressing, around buildings/tenure, employment relations and intellectual property.

There is a strong desire to advance the Net Zero agenda, several venues do not own the freehold of their theatres. This reduces their ability to plan for the long term and seek funds to invest in capital works.

There is also a wish to be fair and progressive employers, but some of the practices entrenched in UK-wide sector agreements have not moved on since the 1970s.

On intellectual property, the report says: “currently no-one is benefiting from the confused and contradictory landscape of Intellectual Property across Scotland and the UK. Producing theatres feel it is not worth the effort to fully exploit their productions as they get little financial reward. Rights holders are let down by commissioners who don’t see the success of their works maximised on stages in Scotland and beyond.”

The report does not offer quick solutions to these key topics, but recommends that “Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government convene working groups of interested parties (including trade unions, trade associations and local government) to untangle these longstanding issues.”

The report has been welcomed by the six commissioning theatres, which have reacted positively to its recommendations.

cultural beacon

Linda Crooks, Executive Producer at the Traverse said: “A sustainable producing theatre sector is fundamental to theatre and the cultural landscape of our society.

“Scotland is one of the worlds’ leading cultural nations, playing host to the biggest annual arts festival in the world. We need to ensure that Scotland remains a cultural beacon throughout the year, as well as maintaining Scottish theatre’s representation during our festival season.

“We are keen to do more to support the broader ecology. Taking on board these recommendations we can grow the market for Scottish-made theatre domestically, throughout the UK and internationally – bringing benefits to creatives, freelancers and the economy as a whole, not just for theatre, but for the television and film sectors that already contribute to Scotland’s economy.”

Report download and links

The full report can be downloaded here: https://dataculturechange.com/spt-report

Lyceum Theatre: https://lyceum.org.uk
Traverse: www.traverse.co.uk/
Glasgow Tron: www.tron.co.uk
Glasgow Citizens: www.citz.co.uk
Pitlochry Festival Theatre: https://pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com/
Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre: https://dundeerep.co.uk


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