Funding Threat as theatre company starts its second quarter-century.
One night in May 1827 twenty-four year old William Corder met his girlfriend Maria in a farm building in the Suffolk village of Polstead. They argued and he shot her dead. A year later he was executed for the crime, having confessed at the last moment.
Maria’s body was found buried in the barn where she’d died. Its name, suitably linked to blood, helped make the case famous and soon melodramas of Maria Marten and the Red Barn were being staged in London and elsewhere.
And then London and theatre were done with Polstead, a village so remote even the road-signs give up on it. Or, almost. For on Wednesday 5 March this year Kate Griffin’s play Cuckoo Teapot will be performed in Polstead Village Hall. Doubtless the shop and post-office, closed before the performance starts, will be open again to sell ice-creams for the interval. For this is a community shop, run as a resource by local people. They can open up when it suits them.
But the theatre company who will present Cuckoo Teapot may be visiting Polstead – along with dozens of other villages and small East Anglian towns with their village halls, schools and theatres – for the last time.
This is because Eastern Angles Theatre Company is having its funding slashed to the point where it will be difficult to maintain any kind of high-quality touring work.
And Angles’ work is high quality. In acting, direction and design almost without fail. In script terms, for a company depending on new plays it has a strong record. What’s more they have gained audience confidence sufficiently to move beyond providing plays only about East Anglia to look at dramas of ideas and scientific speculation as well as adapting books some way from the usual Austen, Dickens fare.
So, why is this happening? The Cambridge-based Arts Council England East say Eastern Angles is “sub-regional”; that is, they don’t tour through all the Eastern Region. Further, they’ve not used funding to “lever” funds from other sources. Even their production Truckstop, a success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is put down to them having a “guest artistic director”. And, of course, who takes credit for introducing them to this guest director? Eastern Angles insist they originated the collaboration themselves, but maybe things have gone so far that no-one in the arts paperchase sector can believe anything good happens without their involvement.
That’s it, and a bigger load of incompetent, unreflective, bureaucrat-minded claptrap would be hard to find in such a short space. It’s incompetent because Ivan Cutting, who founded and built the company, is still artistic director. There was a guest director for Truckstop. But while I’d be willing to push an interval ice-cream up the nose of anyone who insisted the man or woman in the stalls ought to know the difference between the director of a specific production and the artistic director of a company, responsible for its artistic identity and development, the fact that arts bureaucrats don’t know is alarming.
Seeing that this is a decision that could throttle a whole company and jeopardise people’s jobs, it’s extremely alarming. Or perhaps they do know but don’t care. Or can’t be bothered to proof-read public documents before issuing them.
On the matter of “levering” funds, Eastern Angles takes a different line than I do. They point out they earn some £121,000 from ticket sales and funding. I say they’re a theatre company and should be able to get on with producing as much theatre that’s as good as can be and that if the bureaucrats had anything about them they’d get out of their offices and set about helping “lever” some more funds so that can happen.
Here’s another idea. Let’s raise money for the likes of Eastern Angles by cutting every bureaucrat’s salary by 80% and let them make it up out of commission on money they raise for real artists. Alternatively, perhaps someone could “lever” them out of their seats and over the edge of some Damien Hirst-style installation. It’d be interesting to see these so-confident-of-their-judgment, produce-nothing middlemen and women in a real pickle. And they’d be helping produce a piece of art at last.
But the most ridiculous, stupefying, can-this-really-be-happening, what-planet-are-these-creatures-from argument is the “sub-regional” one. The company, it’s complained, only tours to East Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Only.
In front of me right now is the tour schedule for Cuckoo Teapot, spread out across my desk. And it is spread; I make it 65 performances between 13 February-10 May. Every night a different village hall, school or theatre, apart from nine days in their home theatre, the Sir John Mills in Ipswich, where, to use up some of the free time in which they’ll not be travelling, or lugging sets and lights in and then out of performing spaces, they’re fitting in a couple of Saturday matinees. Apart from what arts bureaucrats (and no-one else) would doubtless call “extra-regional” visits to Derbyshire and Alnwick – for the annual Pride of Place Festival celebrating regional touring companies – these performances serve a large rural region.
Eastern Angles brings theatre far closer to many small communities than any town or city-based company. This doesn’t make them better or worse. It makes them a necessary part of the region’s theatre.
Yes, if you’ve a car, can drive at night and are reasonably mobile and affluent, you can visit Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Colchester or Norfolk. But only if you want to. People who don’t wish to, or cannot, go to the trouble, time and expense of travelling to urban centres, who don’t have their own transport (try getting a bus or train back to Monk’s Eleigh or Creeting St Mary at 10.30pm) or who feel timid about visiting theatres they don’t know, or find it difficult to find a friend who’ll go all that way with them, are being isolated from theatre by the very bureaucrats who’re paid to ensure they have access to it.
Ask a bureaucrat this and see if they can tell you the answer: How do you get from the theatre in, say, Cambridge or Colchester to the local bus or railway station after an evening show? How long does it take? What’s the cost of a taxi ride? What’s the number of a reliable taxi company? What does it feel like for women especially to stand 20 minute or more at night in a largely deserted bus station waiting for the last bus, if there is one? Go on, ask them and see how much of an answer you’ll get.
Contrast that with the theatre performance in your local hall. It’s close, you’ll be back in good time, you know the area, you’re more likely to find someone to go with you, and you’re sure to meet someone you know when you’re there. It doesn’t cost a fortune to travel or have a drink. You don’t have to find a parking space, and you won’t be clamped.
What’s more you know, or have heard, how good this theatre company is. Angles haven’t built up these 50 or so venues, many of which keep having them back, by not being good.
Yet, as suggested above, they’re anything but cosily parochial, in subject matter or style. Only the Christmas show in Ipswich works to a formula, and that’s so successful most performances sell out in advance.
Please contact Eastern Angles with your support – NOW; they have only till 15 January to fight the ‘decision’. This company is all many people in practice have. It’s good. Very good, breathing the identity of the region without sucking up to it. It must not be lost.
Sir John Mills Theatre
Ipswich IP1 2LQ.