Balancing public and private funding
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Lorcan Cranitch and Catherine Walker in Landmark Productions' Knives in Hens. Photo: Pat Redmond.

Balancing public and private funding

Traditionally in Irish theatre, the commercial and subsidised theatres have stood benignly apart. The subsidised sector prizes artistic credibility above the need for solid returns – “the freedom to fail” were once its watch words – while the commercial sector sought to give the public what it wanted, and suffered gravely when it didn’t. Or so conventional wisdom goes. If that has proven to be a false dichotomy, with both sectors sharing the same talent pool, informing the other and sharing audiences, a new climate for funding theatre has made it imperative that they reconcile their differences. At this year’s Theatre Forum conference, as participants were aware of an era of diminishing subsidy and keen to go back to the drawing board, one new method made theatre seem like a fusion of both schools, where everything is a “Public Private Partnership”.

Anne Clarke, who runs Landmark Theatre Company, has been in a unique position that is increasingly being held as a replicable model for the independent sector, buoyed by Rough Magic’s recent and successful foray into the commercial industry. As director of a commercial entity staging works such as The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger and Fiona Looney’s Dandelions as investor-backed undertakings in the Olympia Theatre, Clarke has also gained Arts Council funding awards (initially through project grants) to fund productions from which some investors might run a mile: David Harrower’s Blackbird, Frank McGuinness’s version of Miss Julie and Harrower’s Knives in Hens. But the two fed into the other, she said at the Theatre Forum conference, during a discussion entitled “A More Sustainable Theatre Economy for Ireland”.

“Nobody is entitled to public funding,” Clarke said with some caution, but her speech was optimistic for the stability of other sustaining mechanisms. Inspired by a presentation made at the 2009 conference by Alistair Spalding, chief executive and artistic director of London’s Sadler’s Wells, who explained how commercial strategies funded the experimental components of his programme, Clarke continued: “I think we’ve been conditioned in this country to look to the Arts Council to support the more difficult, challenging, art-led work”, and suggested that the recession might be better weathered by “bringing to bear a more commercial sensibility to everything we do”.

The response to such sentiments was largely divided between believers and sceptics. To the notion that commercial productions generate audiences that will then be stimulated into visiting smaller-scale, subsidised work, Project Art Centre’s director, Willie White, was unconvinced. “Commercial theatre is not a dirty word to me,” he said, “but prove the things you’re saying. Prove that successful commercial theatre benefits people lower down the chain… Fundamentally, we should also look at the fact that the public, through their tax contribution, as distributed by the Arts Council, are investors. On whatever scale, public money is not succeeding in attracting people to the work that we’re putting on. I think the crisis is with the work, not the public.”

Clarke’s argument was aided, however, by news that Rough Magic’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Stockard Channing, had recouped its costs at the Gaiety, a venue of more than 1,000 seats, with a top ticket price of €55. Speaking from the floor, Rough Magic’s artistic director, Lynne Parker, explained the company’s strategy and refuted notions that the star-led costume drama represented a departure from their artistic policy. “It’s anything but,” she said. “It’s a new strategy within that policy and it came about because we were looking at a very bleak future.” Although Rough Magic’s cut was not as big as feared, in order to produce more than one show in 2010, the company looked for a production “that could potentially pay for itself – and that’s what it’s just done. Not only has it done that, but it will augment the funding that we are putting into our third production this year,” – Hilary Fanin’s Pheadra –“which will be in a space to be revealed shortly in the autumn.” Rough Magic’s Earnest did not have external investors, however, which is why all dividends will be ploughed back into the company. Its fortunes may be hard to emulate: the production was funded from the company’s cash flow. “This option is not open to everybody,” admitted Parker.

Nor is Public Private Partnership an either/or proposition, and while Rough Magic is currently considering repeating the strategy, Parker was not evangelising for a commercial alternative to the funded independent sector. “I don’t think we should ever remove ourselves from State subsidy,” she said, “not because the sector automatically will need it, but because the State needs to invest in its artists and should be proud to do so. And to give money to those who will bite the hand that feeds it.”


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