We were engaged by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to undertake an assessment of their ‘Regional Theatre Initiative’. This programme was intended to provide play directors with their first opportunity to direct a major production in regional producing theatres in England.
£50,000 was awarded to seven theatres between 2001 and 2004: the Young Vic Theatre (London), Salisbury Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse, West Yorkshire Playhouse (Leeds) and the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Directors included Rufus Norris, Gregory Thompson, Douglas Rintoul, Anna Mackmin, Paul Savage and Toby Frow.
During the 1990s, regional theatres were unnerved by the low levels of government subsidy. Theatres felt that they were often judged not by the work that they did, but by the state of the balance sheet. Their prevailing artistic consciousness and vigour was ebbing away. In this situation, there had been a grave shortage of inspirational artistic leaders wanting to be domiciled in the regions; a flight into freelance careers occurred. However, with promises of increased investment in drama in England from 2002, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation - and Arts Council England that collaborated on the scheme - understood that a healthier theatre industry cannot be made merely by giving the companies more money: the theatres’ renaissance would depend on the talents of play directors. They would collectively become the next generation of artistic directors. The ‘Regional Theatre Initiative’ was born out of the imperative that this new talent should be discovered and fostered. The Foundation saw the opportunity and responded strategically.
In summary, our report demonstrated that the strength of the RTI was that it directly addressed the heart and bones of theatre making. The Foundation trustees saw those things without which a theatre cannot flourish: they enabled theatres to stage large-scale classic plays whilst entrusting these productions to up-and-coming talent on whom the theatres previously felt unable to take the risk. Through its successful partnership with Arts Council England, the Foundation, following an initial venture at the Young Vic Theatre, London, helped regional theatres to redeem and energise their ambitions and standards. Young theatre artists directed large-scale productions; they made the transition from fringe to institutional theatre. How much more the theatres can do to re-establish themselves will now depend on their ability to incline this new associate director cadre towards the profession of artistic director. Managements invariably bemoan a situation in which they can apply for and often receive funding for almost anything except productions. This scheme was therefore much appreciated by the participating theatres.
Our report demonstrates that there were really two equal facets to this scheme: firstly, that of directors creating classic productions and, secondly, the aspiration for incubating new artistic directors. Possibly, the second purpose was too ambitious, but time will tell. In the short-term, because of the ascendance of visiting shows and co-productions, there may be insufficient openings for full-time associate directors at the theatres, but in the longer-term, with extra experience of theatrical management skills, several of the directors might be encouraged to want to run a resident theatre. Nevertheless, even with an insufficiency of leadership training for the young directors, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s ‘Regional Theatre Initiative’ is worthy of celebration. It was a success not only because the theatres understood its potential and made it work, but also because the Foundation trusted them to do so.
View the full report: Evaluation of a Scheme for Associate Directors in Resident Theatres, written by Steven Gale and Paul Iles.