LONDON – London’s West End theatre district is booming with new shows opening every month yet small state-funded venues in the capital are being squeezed from all sides.
Theatres which showcase edgy and political work that would never find a mainstream audience are struggling to deal with cuts of up to a third of their funding as local authorities are forced to tighten their belts.
At the Tricycle Theatre in the deprived north London district of Kilburn, Nicolas Kent has spent 28 years shaping an eclectic output.
In the last 12 months his team have produced work examining the riots which tore through London last summer and a two-part play about the history of the nuclear bomb.
But now Kent has had enough.
“I’ve resigned. I quit in protest because I thought these cuts were much too big,” the 67-year-old told AFP in one of the Tricycle’s rehearsal rooms.
Speaking during a brief moment of quiet in the building, which also hosts a cinema, a cafe and an exhibition space, he said: “I understand the need for austerity, and for the theatre and culture to take its share.
“But what seems to be happening is that the smaller and medium-sized culture bodies seem to be taking the biggest cuts while the very large institutions are getting fairly negligible cuts.”
The Tricycle will have £350,000 ($550,000, 420,000 euros) less to spend next year compared to this year, out of a budget from grants that was about £1.2 million.
With a capacity of just 250 — the biggest theatres in the West End are nearly 10 times that size — ticket receipts only recoup a quarter of the £175,000 cost of putting on a play.
The Tricycle employs a staff of 40, with up to 400 people helping out on a voluntary basis, and Kent says there is simply no fat to trim.
“The cuts didn’t affect the large institutions half as much as they affected the smaller ones because the larger ones don’t get much local authority funding while the smaller ones do, because they are working within their community.
‘I have deep fears’
“The larger theatres found it much easier to attract philanthropic giving. That is what the government wants us all to do, get money through philanthropy.
“But it’s very, very difficult, especially if you’re working in a deprived inner-city borough as we are, and especially if you are doing new work, and doing political work.”
Until the end of March, the Tricycle staged “The Bomb”, a two-part history of the nuclear bomb and its proliferation — a far cry from the current West End smash based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book “Matilda”.
Kent also fears the cuts will force the Tricycle to scale back its educational programmes.
It currently gives 40,000 children a year a taste of theatre, including recent arrivals from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We help to improve their English and social skills so they can go into mainstream schooling,” Kent said. “It’s enormously important.”
In the room next door, an excited class of youngsters are hanging on every word as an actor takes them through a drama workshop.
Watching the happy scene, a look of deep sadness comes over Kent’s face.
“In this country we have less government funding for the arts and theatre than in France and Germany,” he said.
“I have deep fears. The next four years are going to be terribly, terribly difficult.
“I think these cuts may reduce our performances down to a rump and it is going to be very difficult to re-establish them.
“It’s going to be a lot harder for my successor.”
One of the public bodies that funds the Tricycle is the Arts Council, whose spokesman Nick Adams says small theatres are facing a two-pronged reduction in funding.
“The Arts Council has had a 30 percent cut from 2011 to 2015. The challenge is that we had a reduction in funding, and so have the local authorities so it is a double whammy,” he said.
“It means this is a difficult time for regional theatres everywhere.”