What is regional theatre? In some quarters it is seen as somewhat of a derogatory term with the focus on London based theatre seen as much more important. Others see the wealth of work taking place outside of the M25 as a vital breeding ground for theatrical creation.
Yet despite the huge amount of work taking place in venues up and down the country on any given night it is still London and especially the West End that garners the most attention. This is especially true when it comes to the award season. The Oliver awards are often described as ‘the Oscars’ of the theatre industry but only recognise achievements in London (and major commercial central London theatre at that). Could you imagine the reaction if the real Oscars only allowed awards to those films made in Hollywood?
Other awards have of course sprung up over the years to try and recognise the wider theatre scene; The Offies for fringe theatre in London, numerous awards for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the former Manchester Evening News awards (now rescued after threat of closure with support among others from Sir Cameron Mackintosh).
Outside of these major metropolitan centres where is the singing the praises of the regions? Even in the publicly selected awards for What’s On Stage only three out of their 26 categories are open to non London shows.
There is hope on the horizon though. This week saw the inaugural presentation of the re-launched and renamed Theatre UK Awards. Formerly the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) Awards, the awards are publicised as celebrating ‘creative excellence and the outstanding work seen on stages throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’.
In reality however, do the awards really reflect regional theatres?
Big wins for the Donmar Warehouse, The RSC and Shakespeare’s Globe while all deserving of recognition are hardly representative the wider regional theatres scene.
There is also the question of the awards ceremony itself.
Does holding the awards ceremony in the centre of London send out the right message of support to regional theatre?
Does the choice of judges from the national press – while certainly knowledgeable and as well travelled as their diaries and editors budgets allow – reflect the voice of regional critical opinion?
Should the major companies be included in the eligibility criteria? Can the Donmar Warehouse and The RSC really be classed as regional theatre?
Is it possible to compare the work produced by a large organisation with a multi million pound subsidy to the work produced by a small regional touring company on a shoe string budget?
The sheer scale of regional theatre makes the organisation of any awards a logistical nightmare but that sheer scale is also the very reason we need to be celebrating and trumpeting the value of regional theatre. Regional isn’t a dirty word and it’s time to start showcasing the sheer vitality of work taking place across the whole country and not just a small, though well populated and influential, corner.
Article originally written for Arts Professional Magazine