The End of the Civic Theatre Era?
Many local authority owned and operated touring houses are undergoing rapid reorganisation, with ‘Best Value’ reviews prompting new leasing arrangements at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow and the White Rock Theatre, Hastings and have been implemented at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland. Other councils are considering commercial operation, as at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend [leased, with the Palace Theatre at Westcliff, to a new company set up by Qdos and Hetherington Seelig Theatres in 2006, who are taking over the White Rock from Live Nation in 2009]. Some new provincial touring theatres have preferred private operation from the outset, as at the Milton Keynes Theatre and the Regent Theatre in Stoke on Trent. There are now 38 provincial touring theatres in private management. Elsewhere, counterpart municipal theatres at the Derngate, Northampton and the Corn Exchange, Newbury have recently favoured the intermediary and communitarian structure of a non-profit operating company; the form also being chosen for operation of His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen. Although the circumstances of each theatre differ from another, the standalone civic theatre is seemingly on the wane; the shift to syndicates and centralised programming prevails.
In itself, this change is not without precedent; theatres have prospered and gone bankrupt, burnt down and rebuilt or changed managements with astounding frequency for 400 years. In many ways, private company operation of touring houses is only a return to the centralised booking system operated by the Edwardian business managers, such as Sir Oswald Stoll, Richard Thornton, Sir Edward Moss and Howard and Wyndham. These potentates were focused on commercial success through their chains of theatres. Perhaps their work militated against artistic seriousness more than was the case with the preceding Victorian actor-managers or the decentralised, locally run stock companies that were the forebears of subsidised repertory theatres today. In the pre-subsidy era, the touring houses reverberated with the same entrepreneurial vigour and flair that characterise latter-day operators such as Clear Channel [or SFX, now Live Nation in the UK] and the Ambassador Theatre Group. The privatisation of the civic theatres is a direct heritage from the Edwardian business managers who replaced localised management and provincial production and promoted the touring system in its place.
The syndicated structure of these companies today lends itself to commercialism to a far greater degree than a municipal operated theatre, just as the resident regional theatre companies could never be extensively exploited by business managers; neither of the decentralised systems offers much opportunity for financial rewards. However, to explain today’s developments by the actions of the individuals in the new operating companies would be to place an exaggerated personal interpretation on the progress of their touring circuits. What is happening is that fundamental changes are taking place in the organisation of theatre management which have afforded companies such as Clear Channel and Ambassadors Theatre Group (in different ways) the opportunity to exercise new functions suggested by the situation of a reduced role for local government.
The Civic Theatre Manager
During periods when the touring circuit was in shipshape condition, such as in the 1980s, the manager of a civic theatre had, compared with today, a large amount of scope to arrange the season in accordance with his or her judgement of the taste of the local community. The programming always comprised a majority of ‘commercial’ attractions and the Arts Council subsidised productions, although important, rarely dominated the schedule. The manager did not have to accept what a London producer or booking agent chose to send on tour and when it chose to send it, but the theatre could, to a large extent, select the shows it wanted. The manager could afford to apply a greater degree of ingenuity to the scheduling of different types of productions in whatever rotation the theatre felt would best stimulate ‘audience development’. They did not have to suffer the possibility of an unbroken run of tragedies, followed by a run of farces and then of musicals, but they could more easily shuffle the types of presentations so as avoid monotony. The theatre manager knew whether the audience could profitably support one performance in a week, or two or three or more. He could take into account seasonal factors of the business life in the community – when the principal industries were busy or when on holiday – and could avoid conflicting attractions of similar art forms at a neighbouring theatre, through meetings with other managers, while, on the other hand, he could take advantage of tourists assembled for conferences. Of course, a manager of an insignificant civic theatre had less leeway than had the manager in a bigger city, because the theatre did not have first call on attractions; but within limits, every theatre manager had some opportunity to arrange seasons in accordance with local factors and personal enthusiasms.
The trouble was that many local authorities failed to seize their opportunities. Too often, they employed theatre managers who were indifferent toward the theatre, the public, the visiting artists and the producers. To them, a show was a show, and they booked the good, bad and indifferent without making much effort to find out about what they were booking, or devoting much thought to publicity, marketing other factors influencing theatrical business. Sometimes, because they worked for a bureaucratic multifunctional local authority, this was understandable; profits or losses in a council operated theatre were (and still often are) written-off either way at year end and in that system there might be less incentive for the theatre to manage its finances well. It would not necessarily have to prefigure future years’ work and would find it harder to plan longer-term, when the ‘deficit’ budget was part of the much larger expenditure estimates in a council. The existence of managers of this type formed what might be termed an area of low resistance against privatisation of the theatre, and the result is that many local authorities, finding their subsidy levels to be too high, receive with open arms any scheme to relieve them of responsibility for managing the theatre.
The Non-Profit Theatre Manager
The exceptions tend to be those council owned touring theatres that are managed at ‘arms-length’ by a non-profit trust, especially those where a board of directors comprises a majority of theatre devotees from business, educational, artistic and other community backgrounds, supposedly ensuring a first boardroom responsibility to the theatre, whilst remaining politically responsive. In these theatres, councillors ‘influence’ the board via minority board membership, rather than a ‘controlled’ trust dominated by party-political leadership. For theatre, the non-profit form was adopted first by Northampton Repertory Theatre in 1926, providing the apparatus to obtain remission from Entertainments Tax on plays considered wholly or partly educational. Absolution from this tax was the spur to change for many other repertory companies limited by shares but, as might be expected, the producers and touring theatres – when privately owned – regarded the concession as an injustice, particularly those with reputable standards of production. Whilst the change to non-profit operation was adopted by all serious repertories, it is surprising that so few touring theatres adopted the form after local government acquired the remaining buildings in the 1960s.
The case of the Sunderland Empire, a council-controlled trust
One notable exception was the Sunderland Empire – acquired by its council from Moss Empires in 1959 and where a ‘controlled’ trust became the ambitious new model for civic touring theatre, encouraged by the Arts Council and repeated by a minority of other local authorities, as at the Theatres Royal in Newcastle, Norwich and Nottingham. The local authority subsidised the Empire Theatre losses with a 2d. rate, costing them up to £950,000 in the mid-1980s but reduced to £753,778 by 1993. To improve goodwill with theatregoers and artists, they also progressively restored and re-equipped the theatre, spurred by the first-ever direct grant from the Arts Council to a local authority touring house. Throughout forty years’ management by Sunderland Empire Theatre Trust the theatre operated in what is essentially a sellers’ market. Sunderland was badly situated for the success of such a courageous civic theatre scheme: it has always been difficult to persuade companies to send their productions there, because Newcastle is close-by and their Theatre Royal has usually operated barring clauses. Nevertheless, the Empire was the first touring house to recruit a live-wire manager from the ‘art’ theatre: Reginald Birks, who had been general manager of the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow. At first, only the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Old Vic gave him preference, but the RSC moved to Newcastle and, from 1976, developed an annual residency there. Undaunted, the Empire formed a theatre society, where theatregoers could ‘belong’, the manager talked to schools, youth centres, rotary clubs and other associations and developed a party organiser network through use of transport subsidies for coach bookers.
Nevertheless, booking profitable touring companies to sustain a venturesome policy year-round was impossible. Council’s response was to make the Empire a ‘creative’ theatre, developing a loyal audience by producing its own pantomime, hosting an international circus week, foreign ballet companies, and annual visits by the National Youth Theatre and other ‘partnerships’. A North East Theatre Festival with fourteen weeks of in-house productions was organised. Later, subsidised repertory was based at the Empire – the Tyne Wear Theatre Company – as well as an innovating music hall museum. In almost every way, therefore, the Empire operation predated the much vaunted Arts Council Touring ‘venue development’ model of the 1990s, by balancing one-night stands and profitable pantomime with artistically ambitious work.
Until the Sunderland model for civic theatre, the Arts Council and many people in subsidised producing theatres regarded a touring house as a strictly business enterprise that was in no way connected to the art of the theatre except that it provided ‘a lodging house’ in which the productions could be displayed, managed in the same way as any other building, with small variations due to the peculiar demands of presenting theatre. But no matter how successful individual shows or the evanescent partnerships might be, the Empire subsidy remained the highest on the circuit and it is little wonder that the council opted for private management.
Although it may invariably have been a tale of misery for the Sunderland council, elsewhere a ‘council influenced’ non-profit operation has nearly always resulted in ‘better value’ for a council, with the theatre paid subsidy for results, rather than for efforts. In 1999, for instance, a survey of thirteen principal civic and ‘council controlled’ trust theatres found that their average local authority subsidy was £623,186, whereas eight non-profit company touring houses – where councillors were in minority membership and their managers more autonomous – received an average subsidy of £365,589; the strong correlation between high subsidy and directly managed theatres meant a grant per seat comparison of £2.95 versus £1.28. Unsurprisingly, no ‘council influenced’ non-profit touring theatre has recently been passed to private operation.
The return to private operation
When Paul Gregg acquired the New Theatre, Oxford in 1977 – that he renamed the Apollo Theatre – his company filled an entrepreneurial vacuum on the touring circuit. During the next twenty years, they became the most influential theatre managers in the provinces, improving the business administration – and hence the profitability – of over twenty remaining No.1 touring houses. Over one hundred theatres had been closed down between 1945 and when Apollo Leisure began; the freeholds of most of the remaining touring theatres had, after the demise of the Moss Empires’ and Howard and Wyndham, been bought by local authorities. Indeed, Gregg and his associates, including Sam Shrouder, gained their first experience as managers and bookers in theatres owned and directly-administered by local authorities, such as the Southport Theatre. After the reorganisation of local government in 1974, when a constant stream of central government intervention led to compulsory competitive tendering, they were in pole position to develop new affiliations between the commercial theatre and local authorities. Thus, in 1986, they saved the Liverpool Empire from closure through a management agreement with its owners, setting the example for arrangements with many local authorities, including Torbay in 1991, Hayes in 1992, and Sunderland in 2000.
The company’s successors operate the theatres on behalf of the local authority or a trust in a basic management agreement, usually for ten or fifteen years, or by leasing, the length of which depends on council and company needs and the level of shared investment for building upgrades. At Torbay, their lease of the Princess Theatre was for sixty years. They agree a process for maintenance issues, control the bars and catering and, for programming, take responsibility for bookings whilst negotiating minimum levels for different art forms, including the continuation of amateur companies in accordance with the ‘Best Value’ regime. The touchstone for these arrangements is a commercial return, and in this sense the distinction between commercial and non-commercial theatre is a distinction of degree and not of kind; with their commitment to maintain and operate a theatre, they often receive public subsidy. For this reason, they continue to report to the officers and elected members of the local authority as would a non-profit trust company, but their subsidy is invariably less than the costs to a local authority of direct management.
As a result of its gain in bargaining power, the renascent syndicates are able to secure more and better attractions and at more favourable times than is often possible in an independently managed theatre. Besides, they have greater influence in the negotiations over the terms of the contract, within certain established limits, and they can more readily enforce an agreement once made, or, failing that, might more effectively penalise contract defaulters by closing their entire circuit to them in subsequent seasons. Another source of the impetus for the restoration of theatre chains is the certainty of economies. The savings made possible by common operation arise, firstly, out of the elimination of duplication of some overhead items, such as personnel management and marketing and, especially, one office to represent the booking side of the business. In turn, during the 1990s, there was new inducement for self-managed theatres to group informally as producers, with the establishment of The Touring Partnership, The Touring Consortium and the self-produced tours emanating from The Theatre Royal, Bath.
The globalisation of theatre management
In all cases, strength comes from unity and by 1999 the Apollo operation – that had not only become a producer but also acquired health clubs, cinemas and bingo halls – was so successful that the entire share capital was acquired by SFX Entertainment Inc., a company registered in the United States of America. In turn, in 2000, SFX was acquired by Clear Channel Communications Inc., another United States’ firm. At this time, the Apollo Leisure dividend was £2,500,000 and its theatres’ turnover was £90 million, employing an average weekly number of full-time staff of 1,670. Even so, these statistics are like granules in the parent company’s global empire, because Clear Channel controls 125 live entertainment venues worldwide, selling 62 million tickets annually at 26,000 performances of live music, Broadway and touring shows. This company – which also owns radio, television and outdoor advertising firms – has grown from a turnover of $250 million in 1995 to $5.3 billion in 2000. Their mission is ‘to deliver a new standard of creativity and service for live entertainment around the globe’.
Rapid expansion of a second British theatre syndicate
The process of centralisation has been repeated by the Ambassador Theatre Group. Unlike the Apollo founders who came from civic theatres, Ambassador’s leadership under Howard Panter moved into commercial theatre from ‘independent’ subsidised theatre management; this may account for their greater selection of new plays sent on tour. Through the acquisition of new London theatres, the company has expanded enormously, from a turnover of £9 million in 1999 to £26 million in 2000 and £40 million in 2001, employing an average of 1,073 staff weekly. The profit last year was £2,333,215 and its ordinary dividend to shareholders totalled £244,953. Unlike its opposite number, there is no ultimate holding company and the business grew with the investment of over £3 million from British shareholders and bank loans of £8 million. It runs its eight regional touring houses as wholly owned, discrete limited companies, giving local managers considerably more responsibility than do Live Nation, today’s successors to Clear Channel.
Both companies should be observed with great interest. Their acquisition of more theatres amounts to a reorganisation of the touring system, and will surely signpost the end of the civic theatre era. Those who look for success in touring theatre have a lot on which to pin their hopes.
This article appeared in Prompt, the magazine of the Theatrical Management Association, 2002
For recent discussion of the subject of theatre chains and monopolies, via parallels with the United States, see Anthony J Vickery, ‘Static in the Signal: Clear Channel Communications and Theater in the United States’, in Robert A. Schanke, Angels in the American Theater: Patrons, Patronage and Philanthropy, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2007.
I am grateful to theatre consultant Crispin Raymond, former Theatre Director of the Theatre Royal, Bath, and author of Essential Theatre: the successful management of theatres and venues which present the performing arts, Arts Council, London, 2000. For practical discussion of this subject see an interactive version of the book at this link.
 Gordon Sandison, Theatre Ownership in Britain: A Report Prepared for the Federation of Theatre Unions, London, Federation of Theatre Unions, 1953.
 Price Waterhouse, Sunderland Empire Theatre Trust, Directors’ Report and Accounts Year Ended 31 March 1993, Sunderland, 19 December 1993.
 Theatre Royal Norwich, Local Authority Touring Theatre Survey, Norwich, 2000.
 Smith Partnership and Ernst & Young, Registered Auditors, Apollo Leisure (U.K.) Limited, Directors’ Report and Financial Statements for the Period Ended 31 December 1999, London, 21 May 2001.
 Ernst & Young, Clear Channel Communications Inc., 2000 Shareholders Report, San Antonio, Texas, 2001.
 Saffrey Champness, Chartered Accountants, The Ambassador Theatre Group Limited, Annual Report for the Year Ended 30 September 2001, London, 24 January 2002.