Column: David Bown on arts funding and helping young talent

tis  Harrogate Theatre.  (140120M2a)
tis Harrogate Theatre. (140120M2a)

Centre Stage column by David Bown, chief executive, Harrogate Theatre

Recently many arts organisations, including Harrogate Theatre, had to submit their new business plans in order to secure renewed Arts Council funding.

Over the past eight years, after some understandably severe and sustained cuts, this money has come to represent a much smaller proportion of most theatres annual turnover.

However, in the run up to the election, there has been some interesting noises made by two of the major parties, both keen to pledge their support for continued arts funding.

The culture minister Ed Vaizey recently praised the sector and added that new growth “really enforces the point that the creative industries need to be taken seriously” as new figures released last week showed that as a whole they are worth £76.9 billion a year to the UK economy. 
Amongst the optimism was the customary note of caution that I have come to expect. “We can’t promise that things will be easy given the level of cuts implemented across government, but we want to ensure that we can continue to support people training, and continue to support cultural education in schools.”

Interestingly a similar sentiment was expressed by shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman as she expanded upon Labour’s arts policy, calling for “universal entitlement to creative education” as well as arguing for an emphasis on access within publicly funded arts organisations.

“Outreach and access are not options, they must be part and parcel. It must be conditional and organisations should be accountable.”

These two statements are encouraging. You may have seen the article in the Harrogate Advertiser Series highlighting the work of our Education and Outreach department. Hannah Draper and her team deliver a matrix of participatory workshops, weekly classes and performances for all ages both in schools and here at the theatre. Education, outreach and access are at the heart of our philosophy and this work is vital not only to Harrogate Theatre but to the future of the arts.

Harrogate Theatre implements a ‘ladder of progression’ model that provides not just participatory opportunities for all ages, but also rehearsal space and mentorship for emerging theatre companies and practitioners.

Some of these have gone onto to complete Edinburgh runs, national tours and London transfers, becoming the next generation of theatre makers.

Whatever cuts occur to the arts in the years ahead I firmly believe that the ‘grass roots’ of theatre need to be maintained, therefore, it’s good to see it being discussed in the corridors of power.

Also recently he former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Michael Boyd launched a campaign to support drama in schools, which aims to “inspire curiosity in young people”.

Headed by Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, the campaign marks the 50th anniversary of the venue’s Theatre in Education programme. Boyd (who began his career as a trainee director at Belgrade) said drama in schools of the kind TiE enabled is “the absolute epicentre of what makes theatre a distinct and cherished art form”.

He went on to say: “Almost everything I believe and cherish about my chosen art form started in a Coventry schoolroom during an observation of a TiE production. I learned more about the history of the Irish Famine through that show than I could have from any textbook.”

My son, now 12, has taken part in some terrific and stimulating theatre projects, led by inspirational teachers and practitioners.

In his final year of primary (Grove Road), I and many parents were moved to tears by a stunning piece of drama they presented about the Second World War. It was learning at its most interactive and absorbing best.

This month sees some great shows from our associate companies; the first is a haunting ghost story with Reform Theatre and written by the award-winning playwright Philip Meeks called Edith in The Dark.

The second is Waiting For Light, which is a new piece of theatre in development with Black Toffee and part of our new ‘work in progress nights’ - it’s only £3 a ticket and that includes a free drink! Go on …be curious.