Theatre Critic and Journalist

Is UK Touring in Crisis?

Is UK Touring in Crisis?

Published in UK Theatre Magazine, February 2014

In December, a planned five-month nationwide tour of Chariots of Fire was pulled six weeks before its first leg. It’s a technically ambitious show with a 12-strong cast, but this is an Olivier Award-winning playwright’s adaptation of a much-loved film with rave reviews and a six-month stint in the West End in the bag already. A safe bet, you’d think. Weeks earlier, tours of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy Live and The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee starring Darren Day were similarly aborted only days in.

Such cancellations mid- and even pre-tour are an increasingly regular occurrence.  That might reflect a particular lack of quality or audience interest, but it can also stem from capitalisation issues. Rachel Tackley, English Touring Theatre’s artistic director, believes touring companies’ biggest challenge is “getting the money to tour in the first place. Whether you’re a commercial producer or a funded company, it’s having enough money to manage a reasonable length tour.”

It’s a precarious business, touring. As Tackley says, “much more costly than not touring.,” making it particularly difficult for commercial producers. A few difficult dates early on can scupper your shot at later, reliable ones. A couple of cautious up-front guarantees or venues taking longer to transfer takings can halt a tour.

That demonstrates quite how intricate and fragile the touring ecology can be. Everything operates in relation to everything else. Cancellations have rippling effects. Venues are interdependent on account of mutual bookings; companies, because of shared venues. Jodi Myers, formerly ACE’s Deputy Director of Touring, believes that this has become imbalanced: “There are venues citing a lack of supply and companies, a lack of demand.”

The result, she says, is dark weeks in theatres and, as local authority cuts bite, decade-low fees – particularly on the small-scale, where even companies with sensible schedules reporting losses. Many end up with haphazard bookings and economically inefficient schedules. Both problems are exacerbated by the increasingly prevalence of the festival model.

“The touring market is almost split in two,” says theatre lawyer Neil Adleman, Partner at Harbottle & Lewis. “Major tours like War Horse and Wicked sitting down for 10 or 12 weeks are doing really well, while weekly tour is proving tough.”

The numbers seem to bear that story out. Between May 2012 and November 2013, 836 shows performed 10 times or more across at least three venues, yet 20 of them accounted for 46% of total box office income (£407.6 million). That looks worryingly top-heavy, but pricey shows on long tours round big venues will inevitably outstrip more modest touring product financially. It’s interesting that both Paul Milton of Cheltenham Everyman and ATG’s Michael Lynas, arguing for and against below, acknowledge that divide.

Particularly disconcerting, however, is the fate of straight plays. Of those 20 top grossing shows, only one was a play. Two were dance pieces, while 17 were musicals – a form that made up less than a tenth of all touring work during that period, but brought in 54% of takings.

“Audiences are holding up regionally,” says Tackley, but only in the short-term. She says that ETT has had to “revise [its] figures down by 15%.” Many report, as Milton does, that straight plays are reliant on a named actor for audiences. At the very least, a familiar title helps. Yet, there’s some degree of scepticism about touring from actors – with and without profile – and their agents. However, that means new work becomes an untenable risk for some venues.

There’s a certain circularity at play here. A lack of quality work means venues struggle to building and maintain audiences, particularly for new work, leading to tighter guarantees that further reduces supply and impedes audience development. Equally, companies gravitate towards producing houses with loyal, theatre-savvy audiences, often in populous metropolitan areas, leaving isolated presenting houses more reliant on safe bets, further stifling the audience development to draw riskier work. “You either need subsidy or a name,” says Tackley. “Doing it without either is virtually impossible.” (Remember NPOs can’t apply for additional Grants for the Arts funding as RFOs could.)

Yet, some of the most innovative work is found on tour: Headlong’s 1984 and The Seagull, ATC’s The Events, to name just three of last year’s top critical hits. The latter employs a community choir for each performance, combining localism – a currently priority – with reach. Equally, there are some brilliant, locally-orientated new models: Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium and student union tours, touing and tailor-made micro-festivals, the two roaming national theatres of Wales and Scotland, and FUEL’s New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood, which aims to knit touring work into a local community. “The key relationship,” says co-director Louise Blackman, “is with local people who might help us talk about the work and find audiences for it.”

The latter is born of ACE’s Strategic Touring Fund – a £45 million Lottery-funded initiative that probably screams crisis on its own. Several supported projects hinge on collaboration – “a much more grown-up relationship,” says Tackley – with consortia taking ambitious, large-scale work on the road. Yet there remain concerns; that large-scale organisations are better placed to apply, that such consortia can act like gatekeepers, that the STF is only a temporary fix. Equally, the STF takes digital strategy into account, but that’s no substitute for live tours. It may even be a hindrance, enhancing competition through increased audience choice. The jury’s out: the numbers that saw Alan Bennett’s People on tour and through NT Live are practically equal.

Londoncentricity and that ratio of £69 to £4.58 per head also looms over all this. Between 2008 and 2011, more than 30% of RFO touring theatre in the UK played in London. Don’t be surprised to see major London organisations given regional touring responsibilities in the next round of NPO funding, an intervention that would increase that available high-quality product, but could just as feasibly further skew an already precarious touring ecology. Crisis? It could still be too soon to say.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>