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Despite government budget cuts, British theaters thrive and expand.
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, United Kingdom — An excited crowd filled the lobby of The Courtyard Theatre here prior to a performance of “King Lear” by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Members of the audience, from teens through senior citizens, discussed the merits of other versions of the classic.
Exceptional enthusiasm for theater pervades the United Kingdom at the moment — and not only for Shakespeare in the town of his birth. Numerous cities boasting first-rate companies are expanding their facilities. And even though the government plans to cut as much as 30 percent of its arts funding over the next four years, theater will continue to grow because many institutions have secured independent financial support.
Today, the Royal Shakespeare Company opens its handsome new 112.8 million pound ($180 million) home. The facility boasts a 1,000-seat main auditorium with a thrust stage and a renovated Swan Theatre, which is based on a theater used in Shakespeare's day.
“It has wonderful views of the river and gardens,” said Liz Thompson, director of communications, “with open space all around it. We kept everything that still functioned well and improved all the technical features, adding a transparent wall to draw people in. Visitors come here from all over the world, not just the U.K. We have an obligation to satisfy their desire for great theater. I believe we’re seeing a new Golden Age of theater.”
In an effort to marry amateur and professional theater, the company launches its new season with four months of events and activities that give top billing to local amateur performances and choirs. Full productions of its “King Lear” and “Romeo and Juliet” are set for February, with new Shakespeare plays on the schedule for April.
Like many other British theater companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company tours, performing several months in London every year. In summer 2011 it will participate in the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.
With a grant of 5.3 million pounds from the Bristol Arts Council, the Bristol Old Vic, originally completed in 1744 and redeveloped in the 1970s, will soon improve its backstage technical facilities, rehearsal space and offices. Though it will close during the renovation, performances will shift to other local theaters.
Situated in a prosperous city, in a thriving region, the Old Vic Theatre Company can attract big-name stars like Jeremy Lyons and Daniel Day Lewis, both alumni of its theater school, and also present works in progress and experimental productions. Director Tom Morris’ offbeat version of “Romeo and Juliet,” called “Juliet and her Romeo” and set in a retirement home, drew 15,000 people over its seven-week run last spring.
“There’s incredible passion here for theater," said executive director Emma Stenning. “The local community is completely involved. It’s a source of immense pride.”
A crowd of 6,000 welcomed the official opening of Scarborough’s Yorkshire Open Air Theatre by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in May. Designed for amateur community projects as well as concerts by major stars, like opera singers Jose Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, it is only one of a few excellent theaters in the region. Others include the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Royal Theater.
The latter produced the popular “The Railway Children,” now running in London at the former Eurostar wing of the Waterloo train station through early January.
“When times are tough,” said Stuart Tucker, director of Tie Line Productions Ltd., which manages the new theater, “people like to be entertained. The English have always loved to go out to a show.”
Since the appointments of artistic director Gemma Bodinetz and executive director Deborah Aydon seven years ago, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and Playhouse has produced 22 world premieres (the majority by Liverpool writers), increased audiences by 47 percent, involved more than 90,000 students in the theater's work, and entertained more than 10,000 people who were new to theater. Several of their productions have also transferred to London, such as Harold Pinter's “The Caretaker” and “Ghost Stories” by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson.
Like the Bristol Old Vic, the Everyman and Playhouse recently won a sizeable grant to build a new theater. It will involve reproducing and modernizing the original, 400-seat thrust stage auditorium and the quirky basement "bistro," as well as creating new spaces for community groups, rehearsals, writers workshops and staff offices. Work begins in the spring of 2011 and should be completed by 2013.
“We’ve had an huge creative response from the Liverpool Arts Council,” said Bodinetz. “We’re not the richest city in the U.K. so it’s important for us to keep ticket prices low. We’re keen on staying available to most people, nurturing new writers and extending our outreach in the community. It’s going to be tough on all of us when the cuts come. They’re also hard to understand. Culture more than helped regenerate our city, and restore our pride. Theater’s not a dying art at all; it’s sexy.”
The same revitalization of theater taking place in regional cities is full steam ahead in London. The National Theatre recently got the go-ahead for a 70 million pound facelift for its home on the busy and beautiful South Bank Riverwalk, scheduled to begin in 2012. The new look, designed by architects Haworth Tompkins, will reveal some of what goes on backstage. It will provide seating for an extra 10,000 visitors, with a new education center capable of attracting an estimated 50,000 people.
Still, theater professionals acknowledge that government cuts will reshape the landscape. The playwright and opera librettist David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic since 2000, led the rebuilding of the theater, which was completed in 2006.
“What’s odd is that the creative industries are among the most profitably vibrant,” he said. “The cuts seem a more psychological than practical tactic. We’ll just have to find innovative ways to manage. You’ll probably find more collaborations among theaters in the future. I guess you could say we’ve become complacent in comparison to similar institutions in the U.S., which have always had to fight for funding. But we won’t die. We’ll always produce good theater."