An Actor’s Place
The Liverpool Repertory Company at Liverpool Playhouse, 1911-1998
by Pelham McMahon and Pam Brooks
The longest-lived repertory company in Britain – the Liverpool Playhouse from 1911 that closed in 1998 – has now been overtaken by Birmingham Rep, founded in 1912, but thanks to an incisive and well researched new study, the Liverpool story casts the longer shadow over the whole regional theatre movement today.
Within the Liverpool model, repertory became a permanent resource: a theatre building that facilitated and cultivated a tradition, defining innovation through a stable environment, creating ‘a great theatrical tool for the education of actors and local community alike.’ Unlike Annie Horniman and Barry Jackson, who brought the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester and Birmingham Rep into being through their private money and were these theatres’ ultimate force, Liverpool Playhouse was the first theatre to demonstrate and maintain higher pressures of public service.
Upon purchase and conversion of the Star Music Hall - whose original architect, Edward Davies (1866), is identified by the co-author Pam Brooks - the renamed Playhouse was the first non-profit rep owned and controlled by a ‘society’. Its 1,200 shareholders and board of directors were led by the ‘project champion’ and professor of architecture at Liverpool University, Sir Charles Reilly, who negotiated the first case of ‘in-kind’ sponsorship by persuading the interior designer Stanley Adshead to accept payment in shares (worth £230,000 today) for his redesign. It is his work that enabled the Playhouse to be listed Grade II.
Co-author Pelham McMahon, who was secretary of the Friends and official guide to the building, details later improvements but views this year’s plans for repair and alteration nervously, because in the light of research for her book, precedents demonstrate the necessity of the rear stage and stage-right areas to support change-overs. She fears that restricted access to backstage will restrain the work of both in-house and touring productions, to be mounted by a new Trust that has joint-management of the Liverpool Everyman and which, even so, re-opens the Playhouse this month with A Christmas Carol, followed by Twelfth Night in February 2001.
Meanwhile, with the liquidation of the resident company that gave the building its real personality and illustrious value over 87 years, the authors unsentimentally and critically salute an inheritance that will surely be esteemed by the new management, helping it to outwit certain future traps by understanding their predecessors’ many mistakes and finding new applicability for their many breakthroughs.
As with all histories of individual theatres, innumerable ‘names’ are here – youthful appearances by Noël Coward, Robert Donat, Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, Robert Flemyng, Gerald Harper, Beryl Bainbridge, Patrick Stewart, Jean Boht, Richard Briers (who writes the foreword), Ian McKellan and Ken Dodd – in fact 4,624 names were noted in the archives of over 2,000 productions. A large selection is viewed for each decade, often through production photographs or, best of all, a shot of manager-for-51 years Maud Carpenter leading a chic staff on their 1936 outing. 900 artists and staff are named in the index. The purpose of this collation is to show how they contributed to the vitality of the company while they were there: ensuing careers are scarcely mentioned. The authors’ interest is with the life, the endeavour, and the people who shared the company’s revels and risks, ‘with the very ordinariness of true repertory and its suitability for the community that supports it.’
In chapter nine, ‘The Achilles Heel’ - on financial results, production costs, public subsidy and shifts in power structures - in which they examine accounts from 1911, they argue that successful financial control must begin with a budget that emphasises expenditure on the production of plays, not administration. The authors stress the positive influence and independence of the board and the continuity of long-serving artistic directors such as William Armstrong (1922 to 1940) and Willard Stoker (1951 to 1962). Financially, the most successful years were under the chairmanship of Lord Cohen of Birkenhead (1949-1960), when eight years had six-figure profits, six of them exceeding artistic director Richard Williams’ record of £114,000 in 1998 values – all figures are helpfully converted to contemporary values of the pound.
The advent of significant subsidy in 1963 changed all that. Their retrospections argue that once public subsidy began, its maintenance became the ‘major nightmare’ and a ‘deceptive security blanket’ used by artistic directors to plead for bigger casts and production costs, enabling theatregoers to argue against higher ticket pricing. The politics and paraphernalia of subsidy – especially dealing with the Arts Council’s demands for local authority parity funding from five new councils after the break-up of Merseyside County Council – gradually eroded self-government, with board members ceasing to be recognised figures in the city or the theatre.
Most repertory theatres were in similar difficulty through the 1990s and at Liverpool - as with Leatherhead and Windsor - it was Bill Kenwright, the Merseyside-born impresario, who offered to rescue the company. Even so, for five years to 1996 he was an absentee producer. The authors tantalisingly hedgehop the details of his confusing ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that brought stars and ‘West End style’ to the Playhouse but led to a diminution of the resident repertory ethos of a lasting association of creative theatre makers under artist leadership. There is more to disinter from this period and, one day, it will be instructive to read Kenwright’s own account. Meanwhile, come hell or high water with the new Playhouse-Everyman Trust, everyone who worked at or has been to Liverpool Playhouse will be grateful for this fine book, as in a differing way will be those who have never known it.
An Actor’s Place, The Liverpool Repertory Company at Liverpool Playhouse, 1911-1998 (ISBN 1 872568 61 0) is published by The Bluecoat Press and available (price £14.00) from Bluecoat Arts Centre,
Sunderland Empire Theatre
A History of the Theatre and its Stars
by Alistair Robinson
This history of the Sunderland Empire Theatre (William and Thomas Ridley Milburn, 1907) is by the entertainments editor of the Sunderland Echo, Alistair Robinson. It evolved from a run of articles, especially interviews with visiting stars. He hoped the theatre’s managers, who had scant archive material and ‘only a sketchy idea or respect for the building’s great heritage’, would use them. The timing of his expansion of the features into a well-illustrated and detailed history is serendipitous, because in October 2000 the council-owned and trust-operated Empire returned to commercial management, when Clear Channel-SFX-Apollo Leisure took it over under a 12-year contract.
For theatre observers’ outwith Sunderland, Robinson’s history is well-worth considering because the monolithic and architecturally idiosyncratic Empire Theatre was the first No.1 touring house freehold purchased by local government, in 1959. Then the only remaining of six live theatres in Sunderland, the corporation bought it from Moss Empires to save it from demolition, for £53,000.
The operation of this 1,800-seat theatre was the ambitious new model for ‘civic’ touring theatre, encouraged by the Arts Council and repeated by many other local authorities. Council subsidised it with a 2d. rate, realising up to £950,000 in the mid- 1990s, then the highest grant to any British touring theatre. 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.
Throughout 40-years’ management by Sunderland Empire Theatre Trust – formed as an ‘arms length’ organization to take the operation out of party politics but in practice always dominated by the local authority - the theatre operated in what is essentially a sellers’ market. Robinson’s post-1959 chapters are – apart from the glamour of the stars - a tale of misery for the council, the trust and its several artistically ambitious managers.
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 and Tyne Theatre have 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. Scottish Opera also visited the Empire, but it was not long before it too made Newcastle its North East home. 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.
Booking profitable touring companies to sustain a venturesome policy year-round was impossible. Council’s response was to encourage Birks 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. Thus, they overcame many prejudices held by biased southern highbrows, ‘that any show that goes to Sunderland must have something wrong with it’. Later, under manager Roy Todds, subsidised repertory was based at the Empire – the Tyne Wear Theatre Company – but for reasons of space, this precipitated closure of the Empire’s badly supported yet innovating Music Hall Museum. A seesaw ride continued, with large budget overruns and consequent political agitation that, until his retirement in 1982, had been dealt gently by Len Harper, the Empire’s long-serving chairman.
By this time, the theatre lost its repertory company, which departed for the Newcastle Playhouse. The losses soared, and the Empire relied more and more on the success of pantomime, rock concerts and other one-night stands. Even so, Northern Arts Board, who gave an annual grant of £30,000 from 1990, hatched carrot and stick schemes for the Empire to be the ‘international opera and ballet house’ for the North East. However, their plans came to nothing. Robinson’s observation of these frenzied pipe-dreams is often most expressive, as when he recapitulates:
It could be said that Sunderland Empire over the last few decades is where grand plans come to die. It is not just a comedian’s graveyard, but a crematorium for ambition.
Grand plans need more money than Northern Arts could ever supply, and each year the Sunderland council – like many other local authorities – had to meet the losses. No matter how successful individual shows or the evanescent partnerships might be, the Empire subsidy remained the highest on the circuit. In order to reduce the grant, the theatre is now run by the level headed and astute commercial managers, Clear Channel-SFX-Apollo Leisure, a return in many ways to Richard Thornton’s Moss Empires for whom it was built. Clear Channel is maintaining a commitment to Birmingham Royal Ballet, but in the Empire brochure for January to June 2001, there is no other subsidised ‘art’ company in the crowded schedule of 45 attractions. Robinson’s worthy history does not argue for or against the new operators – after all, they are the most au fait with big venues worldwide and are poised to take over more local authority theatres this year – but their programme is a sad indictment of No.1 touring today and a threadbare end to the Sunderland ‘civic’ theatre dream.
Sunderland Empire Theatre. A History of the Theatre and its Stars (ISBN 901237 16 8) is published by TUPS Books, 2000 and available (price £9.95 pb plus £1.15 p+p; £17.95 hb plus £2.00 p+p) from Trade Union Printing Services,
In the wake of the Arts Council of England’s scenario for a new theatre policy – set out in The Next Stage and researched by Peter Boyden in Roles and Functions of the English Regional Producing Theatres (2000) – Prompt invited Paul Iles to review two recent publications that offer TMA members an international measure of theatre organisation.
THEATRE WORLDS IN MOTION
SECURING THE FUTURE
The subtitle of Theatre Worlds in Motion is Structures, Politics and Developments in the Countries of Western Europe, thus intimating the scope of a massive survey that ‘aims to clarify the different theatre traditions and practices in Western Europe from a historical and sociological perspective’. Nineteen theatre academics from different countries contribute to a conspectus of theatre systems in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, the final nation-study written by TMA member Michael Quine of the City University, London.
These authors considered that although they understood the way in which theatre organisation in their countries had evolved and functioned today, it was harder to juxtapose systems in other countries. As a consequence, their research offers a fascinating European panorama as well as detailed information about each country.
In the past fifty years, these countries have all inclined towards decentralising their theatre systems, delegating more responsibility to local and regional authorities. The first essay, ‘Decentralisation and Cultural Democracy’, by the Irish theatre historian and playwright, S. E. Wilmer, discusses the uneven speed at which this has occurred. Some countries, such as Switzerland because of its federal democratic structure and its regional languages, have always maintained decentralised systems. Other countries, such as Spain, have regionalized more recently. An adjunct of this process has been the EU reduction in emphasis on national sovereignty with increasing stress on regional and local cultural distinctions. The trend continues in other countries, raising questions of devolution similar to recent experiences in Britain.
A countervailing tendency has been the international financing of productions between theatres in different countries, helping to break down boundaries between national theatre systems, stimulating ideas for reorganisation such as the recent European Cities of Culture. Wilmer also discusses the extent of decisions being made by local politicians rather than by arts councils operating with peer-group surveillance. In this context, the introductory also explains how different funding agencies deal with the balance of priority between experiment and the popular theatre; how theatres cope with funding body u-turns, and why theatre artists have opposed decentralisation.
Each chapter applies refreshing historical consciousness to the contemporary theatre. In the case of Germany, for instance, Jürgen Hoffmann offers comparisons with the headwaters of German theatre in the 1700s. He discusses the censorship debate, the effects of Nazi management, theatre restorations, the tension between the rechsträger (the ‘license holders’ or owners) and intendanten (those who run the theatres in practice), the consistency of theatregoer organisations (Volksbuhne and Theatergemeinde), sales structures and the difficulties of the former GDR theatres under reunification. As in a mirror of British theatre, he describes a ‘Manager Merry-go-round Cycle’. This is caused, in part, by theatres being managed as Regiebetrieb (public institutions) on the lines of ‘a slaughterhouse, a swimming pool, a hospital, a graveyard or a sewage plant’. The choice of Intendant is frequently the point of collision between the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of art and the intervention of inconsistent cultural policy in the theatre ‘world’. In large theatres, only theatre directors who have previously managed a similar or smaller theatre are chosen. Theatre management positions are advertised by law. They are paid between £60,000 (for a small theatre of similar size to the Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne) and £100,000 (at a bigger theatre the size of West Yorkshire Playhouse). It is the license holder who makes the final decisions.
The percentage of its budget that a German public theatre earns through ticket sales is, generally, between 12 and 15 per cent and, once it is settled, targets are rigidly expected of the Intendant, but not increased. We learn nothing about ‘benchmarking’, ‘best value’ or cost-benefit indicators in German theatres, where such manipulations have not yet forced the companies to distort their artistic mission with economic whitewash.
The concluding essay, ‘How to Describe the Functioning of Theatre’ by Hans van Maanen, will be of less interest to TMA members, who may find it to be a dubious theoretical bid to develop a model for studying the performance of a theatre system, despite several clear tables. Employing categories of ‘aspects’ of organisational structure, process and effect, ‘domains’ of production, consumption and dissemination and ‘levels’ of the individual, the theatre-as-institution and society, he breaks these down in 60 different ways. It amounts to a densely reasoned sociological analysis. Even so, we should persevere with this chapter. This new methodology could easily be adjusted as the next standard for Arts Council grant applications and assessment criteria.
Each chapter contains details about policies, subsidies, box-office takings, income and expenditure of selected theatres, a bibliography and, often, useful lists of theatre organisations. End parts of each nation-study will date rapidly, but TMA managers of theatres and festivals – especially those at the latest watershed in British repertory companies - will find comparisons with other countries to be an invaluable, all-purpose overview, especially guiding us to making new contacts.
In the Commonwealth countries where the British Arts Council funding system was repeated - customarily differing to the rest of Europe - theatre companies are struggling with the same intense financial insecurities and pressures as those analysed by Peter Boyden. In 1999, in Australia, the federal Department of Communications, Technology and the Arts published the results of a high-powered ‘major performing arts inquiry’, Securing the Future. It is an informative document, full of resonance for British theatre.
Providing a jam-packed array of well laid out facts and analysis of 31 companies, it offers 90 pragmatic options, some innovating and some familiar. New recommendations relate broadly to the internet, video production and technology, to creating a ‘reserves’ bank and requiring theatres in trouble to sell off their assets. In the producing drama theatres, familiar options include new funding contracts, cooperation with festivals, cooperation across artforms, more buy-ins and co-productions, bringing in touring productions with local theatres acting as presenters, merging managements in the same cities and, overall, reducing the number of producing companies. The authors champion a concern about profitability and the bottom line as a measure of the credibility of the companies, whilst being sensitive to the dissimilar economics of opera, ballet, circus and music. They canvass options for grant tenure as well as debate the enfeebling consequences of project funding upon the core grants of resident theatres.
The well-known proposition is that deficits in the big companies are leading to a descent in artistic ‘excellence’, though it could be argued, as in Britain, that this crisis relates, not to the artform itself, but essentially to globalisation, subsidy and the funding bodies’ preoccupation with ‘growth’, ‘initiatives’ and ‘better’ management. Exempting an eloquent, rousing foreword by the novelist and opera-librettist David Malouf, the effectiveness of the report’s narrative is, like Boyden, reduced by its disconnected, management-dominated discourse.
The four authors – Helen Nugent, Michael Chaney, David Gonski and Catherine Walker – are all associated with Australian performing companies. Their value in this context is that they are highly credentialed in business but – however much the report is dispassionate - this front-line of ‘financial’ discussion permits the government and funding bodies to plead for the industry while, miserably and like in Britain, the artistic directors, playwrights, actors, managers, critics and scholars are mislaid as no more than attendant understrappers. This is regrettable because, compared to what was being staged, say, in the 1970s, theatregoers in the subsidised and commercial theatres in Australia can see shows of higher quality in every respect, in all states, territories and regions.
Theatre Worlds in Motion, edited by H. van Maanen and S.E. Wilmer. Amsterdam and Atlanta, Rodopi Press, 1998. 777 pages. Hardback £124, paperback £32.50. ISBN 90-420-0762-1 (bound). Available via Editions Rodopi B.V., Tijnmuiden 7, 1946-AX Amsterdam, Holland. Telephone 00+31 20 611 48 21, fax 00+31 20 447 29 79, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Securing the Future, Commonwealth of Australia, 1999 and 2000, can be downloaded at http://www.dcita.gov.au/
The illustration shows a poster design by Bill Elliott for The Man From Mukinupin, a musical by Dorothy Hewett and Jim Cotter produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia at the Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, August 1980. Paul Iles was general manager of the company at this time. Now an Australian classic, this great work was revived by Company B at the Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, May 2009.