A new policy for theatre: Theatre Forum responds

A new policy for theatre: Theatre Forum responds

At the end of March, the Arts Council quietly released its new theatre policy, a short but radical document that has redefined the landscape of Irish theatre. Responses from the theatre sector so far have been cautious, if not muted, largely because Supporting the production and presentation of theatre: a new approach enshrines an approach that is already clearly evident.

Identifying six types of support for theatre makers – core funding of producing organisations, project funding, shared administrative resources, touring, artists’ support and development initiatives – the policy represents an integrated system in which theatre makers, venues and festivals are incentivised to collaborate in the making of work, with the document liberally referring to “holistic development” and “a balanced ecology of provision”. It can also be read as a retrospective justification for the severe cuts of 2010, in which eleven theatre companies saw their funding removed completely, with a new series of project grants extended as a lifeline.

“The overall intention is to increase the proportion of funding being directly used to make the art,” the document explains, recapitulating now familiar concerns for the sustainability of production companies. Although the Arts Council will continue to support “a sustainable number” of companies, that figure is unlikely to be specified. The demanding criteria for core funding suggest a further contraction in the number of such organisations.

Funding companies with “a proven track record”, national profile or regional significance, focussed on new writing, training, or touring, while also generating audiences and income, the Council’s new criteria are notably limiting, while its required outcomes – an agreed number of productions, national touring, plans for succession training and co-production arrangements – are especially challenging. “When you tick all those boxes,” asked Theatre Forum chairperson Fergal McGrath “is there more than a handful of companies?” One thing seems certain; no new companies can gain core funding under those terms. Core funding can only be lost.
“We are glad that it has at last been published,” McGrath says of the policy. Taking feedback from the organisation’s membership, McGrath has been preparing a response to the policy with the board of Theatre Forum, citing “potential issues but possibilities” within the document. “The overarching view that Theatre Forum would have is that we are dealing with a new reality,” he says. “The status quo has changed and our view is that we will endeavour to work with the Council to optimise the options for our members.”

Expectedly the policy has drawn differing responses along familiar fault lines, between those potentially threatened and those empowered, established and emerging, conservative and radical. “For many people it counts as good news,” said one member, “and others see it as all of their worst fears come to reality.”

“We are all anxious to hear the detail on the various initiatives that have been proposed,” said Loughlin Deegan, Artistic Director of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival and Theatre Forum board member. “There were few surprises in it. In various fora the Arts Council had articulated what its thinking was regarding theatre funding.” While Deegan saw a co-operative and cohesive sector, particularly in increased responsibility among “prioritised” organisations to support the work of others, he also wondered if the new system could sustain output and the development of careers. “It raises so many big questions over whether we can have a healthy theatre infrastructure using this model. I think we need further discussion, more information and further insights into the council’s thinking and their plans for the future.”

There are already some concerns about the specifics of the policy. No time line has been mentioned for rolling out such new initiatives as the artist-in-residence programmes or pilot projects for production hubs. Venues and festivals will be incentivised to produce work, but it is unclear that they will be further resourced to do so. There is no reference to Annual Programme Grants, generating uncertainty over the future of the funding stream and the fates of companies currently operating within it. Broadly, though, there seems to have been little resistance to the policy.

“Our overarching view is that we see this policy as a new reality,” says McGrath. “It’s clear, though, that the role of the company model is effectively being reduced. Most feedback we’ve been getting is that it raises the question, what then becomes of the shelf life of productions, employment of artists, and do career paths exist anymore?”

The stated aim of the policy is that this new approach will generate more productions, and Theatre Forum hopes the Council will evaluate the effectiveness of the shift in policy. Members had expressed concerns that if the infrastructure was undermined, and project funding increased the quantity of productions at the expense of quality, “you might have increased volume through a yellow-pack system”. Theatre Forum’s board will not be issuing a formal response to the policy, says McGrath, but will seek clarification on certain issues while devising a strategy to work with it.

Developed in consultation with the theatre sector and preceded by a “discussion document”, the Arts Council’s new policy is being greeted as a responsive document.

“I think it’s come some way since the draft that was circulated last year,” says McGrath. “At that time Theatre Forum’s biggest fear was that it might not be an holistic approach. I think it is responsive, but that’s not to say that Council shouldn’t get continuous feedback from the sector on its rollout.” He added, “There are a lot of things there that are worrying and some of them have already come to pass. We’re not quite sure what might follow. “The devil is in the detail and we will be striving to have that detail fleshed out, that if there is any ambiguity it will be clarified and that any unfairness will be addressed.”

All eyes are now on the Arts Council’s project grants, which were awarded to successful theatre applicants last week. “Everybody will be watching them to see will they provide hope for a real alternative in the absence of the previous infrastructure of companies,” said McGrath.


1 Comment

Michael Way says Fri, 14 May 2010 12:48
we created a sustainable model in the 80's centred around our own venue and an output of revivals, Irish premieres of work from overseas and our own work - supported in part by trading out our theatre skills-base into the local economy, very small local authority grants, FAS schemes and costume hire, lighting design & hire etc. but despite creating a modest stir nationally through the quality of our work we didn't suit the particular climate engineered by the Arts Council of the time and so, eventually we gave up on them and were grant-aided, as a one-off, by the National Lottery and, thanks to that, we continue, this year, into our 30th year. We would love to receive some sort of support from the Council and are hoping, this time round, that the climate has been engineered around financial response to unique theatre art of an international quality which speaks to and reflects the worlds and times we actually live in - Michael, Riff Raff Theatre

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