Factors That Threaten Community Theatre Sustainability in the United Kingdom.

Historical Context

It’s difficult to imagine an industry so enduring as theatre throughout the United Kingdom’s history. Prolific contemporary playwrights and spectacular technology-rich West End productions have superseded the early determinations of travelling performers and entertainers of royalty. For any industry to survive many hundreds of years it must adapt to the changing tastes, desires and demands of its patronage. Theatre in the UK has time and time again evolved to ensure its place in our communities, culture and hearts. However, there remains a sub-group of theatre in the UK that, continues to struggle more than others due to a complex set of circumstance and occasional media rhetoric (The Guardian, 2015).

Community Theatre (sometimes referred to as Regional, Little or Amateur Theatre) was born largely out of desire for local communities to connect, grow and entertain in the years following both World Wars (Shellard, 2000). While they enjoyed a period of popularity and growth in the mid-20th century very soon they were faced with the first of what would turn out to be a relentless set of challenges to their existence (Sell, 2000). As television in the home became more affordable and local councils began earmarking community halls and theatres for demolition, many theatres faced the harsh reality that a “community spirit” alone could not save their fledgling societies.

In response the vast majority of such theatres closed their doors (Sell, 2000). But a number of them did survive. Driven by an understanding of the importance of local communities, whilst working together to provide an affordable vehicle for local audiences to experience the vast gamut of theatre, they weathered the storms. Purchasing buildings from local councils, setting up governing bodies, becoming non-profit societies, securing charitable status, learning the skill of grant writing and tackling a seemingly never-ending list of legal considerations and Health & Safety legislation, these pioneers of theatre bolstered their place in the UK’s Theatre Arts culture.

In this sample paper I will highlight two of the current dynamics facing Community Theatre survival in the UK; the acquisition and maintenance of accommodations and the trade-off between the deployment of volunteers and paid employees in a non-profit arts organization.

The cost of doing business
Building blocks

Theatre in the UK can be traced back as far as the early 16th century (Freedley & Reeves, 1968). Over the centuries it learned to adapt to the trends of the time and to fluctuations in popularity and legality (Kruger, 1992). Contemporary theatre in the UK was birthed in the aftermath of WWII. The abolition of censorship and the introduction of new legislation to protect and promote the arts resulted in theatre companies, both professional and amateur, springing up across the land (Aldgate, 1992). Whilst those in more urbanized areas enjoyed local councils with bigger budgets, societies also formed in areas where cash was less readily available. Buildings, some already hundreds of years in existence, were snapped up and converted from music halls into theatres. In the fire sale of the 1950’s and 60’s local councils were happy to sell off housing and community buildings that they, otherwise, would have to maintain, renovate or replace (Thompson et al., 2012).

One such building was Lancaster Grand Theatre situated in the North West city of Lancaster, England. In 1950 the building was earmarked for demolition, along with surrounding rows of terraced houses, to make way for a new City Centre. “The Grand”, as it was locally referred, had stood in the city since 1782 and had accommodated such eminent artists as Sarah Siddons and Charles Dickens (Betjamin, 2008). Unsurprisingly it held a place in the hearts of many locals who couldn’t bear to see it reduced to rubble. A few intrepid entrepreneurs clubbed together, put their hands in their own pockets and raised £7000 (the equivalent of £220,000 or $317,000 today) to purchase the theatre (Betjamin, 2008). In doing so local amateur theatre group, Lancaster Footlights, became custodians of the theatre, who, to this day, continue the annual struggle of raising the money to keep the building standing. When you consider that a building 230 years old requires a unique understanding of its architecture and construction we better understand it’s considerable annual cost just to maintain.

In order to keep pace with technology and changing audience tastes The Grand, as with all theatres, has to adapt not only its business model but also its physical space to keep it “on trend”. The rigidity of such an old building makes remodeling near impossible and so the only viable solution is expansion where space allows; an inevitability that Lancaster Footlights are currently undertaking with their “New Spaces” appeal to raise funds for the construction of a new flexible foyer space (Betjamin, 2008).

Additionally, Historic England’s limitless appetite for giving buildings of historical importance “Listed Status” (a designation that restricts alterations to a building to conserve it’s historical character) further delays any possible modifications and unsurprisingly increases the cost of the work with an exponential increase in red tape and planning considerations (see Foster, 2004 for example).

Thus, the ease of acquiring, maintaining and remodeling old buildings for use as theatres following the war contributes significantly to the ongoing costs for community theatres to this day.

People investment

All non-profit organizations understand the importance of philanthropy to their existence. There is a natural conflict between raising funds to support the organization whilst propagating the use of unpaid workers to get things done – enter the volunteer.

The deployment of volunteers in arts organizations should be valued. Without them many societies would literally fold. It’s a healthy way for individuals to support a cause they hold dear and an efficient use of personnel to achieve certain goals. It does, however, come at a significant cost to the non-profit sector. By establishing that you accept work within an organization can be completed at zero payroll cost you run the risk of a bottom-up dilution of salaries for those tasks that demand an individual be paid. Payroll costs in any organization are significant; in non-profit theatre they can be crippling.

In the UK employers are required by law to pay the “minimum wage” to most employees. This currently stands at £6.70 ($9.78) per hour for those aged 21 and over (Gov.com, 2016). From 2017 employers will have to match the governments “living wage” for anyone aged 24 and over, currently set at £7.20 ($10.51) per hour (Gov.com, 2016). Assuming a community theatre requires an average of 10 full time employees to cover admin, cleaning and maintenance jobs, the annual costs is close to £150,000 ($219,000) before you have addressed skilled workers such as Marketing and Development Director, Business Manager, Theatre Manager or Production staff, for example. Currently the largest single government grant an arts organization can apply for in the UK is £100,000 through the Grants for the Arts (Arts Council England). It’s clear, therefore, that community theatres need to embrace volunteers or hire an exceptional Grant Writer!

Additionally, low wages do little to attract the best managers and leaders to the non-profit sector in the UK. The Charities Aid Foundation reports that non-profit organizations in the UK account for 2.6% of the workforce and contribute 0.8% to GDP (compared to 9.2% workforce, 5.5% GDP in the USA) (CAF, 2015). Clearly the non-profit sector still has some way to go before it can be seen as a viable career path for business graduates. In fact, less than 1% of money donated to the non-profit sector between 1992 and 2011 was spent on leadership development (Hirschfield, 2014). The Talent Philanthropy Project summaries this terrifying statistic by observing that:

“Given the limited and apparently dwindling levels of foundation funding for nonprofit talent infrastructure, it is not surprising that the social sector suffers from poor recruitment, retention, and retirement, which could in turn be causing serious damage to performance and sustainability.” (Stahl, 2013)

In the future community theatres are going to have to work harder to prevent low (or no) pay jobs attracting unskilled and undervalued employees to all positions within their organizations. The Talent Philanthropy Project goes on to offer stimulus questions to guide institutions in the development of leadership recruitment, retention and retirement policies. For example,

• Do you grow leadership internally?
• Do you partner with institutions to recruit at an economy of scale?
• Do you provide counseling or support for managing debt?
• Is there a professional development line item in the budget?
• Does the board have and approved leadership transition plan in place?
• Do you have engagement strategies for retiring staff to serve as mentors or advisors? (Stahl, 2013)

The long-term sustainability of community theatres in the UK relies on investment in a talented paid workforce at all levels. This comes with significant costs to the organization and takes time, money and a unique skillset to achieve. Those theatres that do not embrace such investments run the risk of not surviving in an increasingly competitive job market.

Conclusion

Non-profit Community Theatre organizations the world over share a similar drive and passion to positively impact their local and regional communities. Each organization must operate within increasingly challenging parameters in order to survive in a competitive “entertainment” world. In the UK the use of significantly older buildings and comparatively less philanthropic input provides unique challenges for such theatres. Boards of directors will have to embrace and navigate new legislation and invest heavily in people in order to continue their efforts for their communities.

 

Works cited

Aldgate, A. (1995). Censorship and the permissive society: British cinema and theatre, 1955-1965. Oxford University Press.

Betjeman, A. G. (2008). The Grand Theatre, Lancaster: Into the Third Century. Lancaster Footlights Club.

“CAF World Giving Index 2015: A Global View of Giving Trends.” Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), Nov. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Foster, L. (2004). Progressive access: unique solutions for historic buildings. Journal of Architectural Conservation, 10(3), 73-86.

Freedley, G., & Reeves, J. A. (1968). A History of the Theatre. Crown.

“National Minimum Wage Rates”. Gov.com. Gov.com, 8 Jan. 2016. Web. 3 Feb. 2016

Hirschfield, Ira. “Less Than One Percent.” Haas Jr. 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Kruger, L. (1992). The national stage: Theatre and cultural legitimation in England, France, and America. University of Chicago Press.

“Open Funding Programmes.” Arts Council England. Arts Council England. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.

Sell, M. (Ed.). (2000). The Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres, 1750-1950: A Gazetteer. A. & C. Black.

Shellard, D. (2000). British theatre since the war. Yale University Press.

Stahl, R. M. (2013). Talent philanthropy: Investing in nonprofit people to advance nonprofit performance. The Foundation Review, 5(3), 35.

“The BBC Has Made a Crisis out of Regional Theatre.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 12 Jan. 2016.

Thompson, G., Hawkins, O., Dar, A., and Taylor, M. (2012). Olympic Britain: Social and economic changes since the 1908 and 1948 London Games. House of Commons Library.

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