The Big Debate – Pulse Fringe Festival

What is the future for regional theatres and how do they compete with London?

A big question and the subject for The Big Debate, the opening event in this year’s Pulse Fringe Festival.

Chaired by Rob Salmon, the New Wolsey’s Associate Director, an assembled panel an audience gathered on a newly created performance space on the New Wolsey stage to talk about the challenges, and opportunities, faced by regional theatres.

Kicking off the discussion on what regional theatre actually is and the challenges faced, Ric Watts, an independent theatre producer working with companies such as Analogue and Frequency Di’ici though that sweeping statements across the arts don’t necessarily work and that it important for individual companies to create their own identity.

The New Wolsey Theatre’s Artistic Director believes that regional audiences may provide a more honest response to work, compared with an industry led audience in London, while Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low strongly believes that taking work in central London shouldn’t be the central focus of a company.

The emotive subject of press coverage of regional theatres caused much discussion among the panel. Emma Bettridge, the Festival Director for Pulse explained that they had fought long and hard to get National coverage for the festival, while Peter Rowe explained that national coverage is important to leverage funding and partnerships.

Andrew Clarke, Arts Editor for the East Anglian Daily Times obviously has a keen interest in the subject of review and press coverage and he believes that London critics are more critical of new work than regional colleagues.

Paul Warwick from the Warrick Arts Centre believes that the whole medium of reviews have changed and with the decline of traditional print media a quote from the Guardian is perhaps now less important than blogs and social media coverage. There’s recognition that venue’s use of Social Media channels, while growing, still needs to be improved with less hard sell and more engagement.

No discussion on the arts would be complete without the emotive subject of funding. The view that more private funding should be sought to replace the diminishing public purse caused much debate. All expressed a view that funding had become increasingly difficult but also conversely vital. Ric Watts believes that niche products may be easier to sell to a targeted funder but the fact that you may only be able to offer ‘a small glass of fizz’ in a fringe theatre is unlikely to attract large corporation funding.

So what is the future for regional theatre? Despite the challenges it seems remarkable positive. Partnership and collaboration seems the new key, with sharing of resources and productions seen as a positive step forward. Partnerships need to be built on trust however and not forced. Alan Lane explained it was like having half the cheque, companies may have the idea but need to work with venues who can provide the space, mentoring and support to bring the show to an audience.

A lot of debate, much continuing after the formal debate ended, shows there is a lot to talk about in regional theatre.

Key thoughts from the debate?
Venues need to get smarter with fundraising and look at alternative income streams.
Critical coverage is changing and companies need to embrace new technology and channels.
Partnerships and collaborations are essential, however painful that may seem.
Artists need to make the work they want to make, rather than tick boxes to meet funding requirements but also need to get more intelligent on who wants to see the work.
Trust is key between artists, venues and audiences.

Challenging times ahead certainly but with the enthusiasm shown during the debate from both panel and audience a challenge that can be met.

Photo: The Big Debate Panel. Left to Right: Peter Rowe, Alan Lane, Emma Bettridge, Rob Salmon, Andrew Clarke, Paul Warwick and Ric Watts.

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