It’s easy to discuss theatres as though theatre buildings all fulfilled the same purpose and were structured in the same way. In an earlier post, I compared theatres to restaurants.
But where all restaurants have fundamentally the same structure – they all prepare and serve food to customers – theatres cannot be so easily classified. And although theatres fall into four basic categories – West End, Producing, Presenting and Receiving – within each group there is a huge variety of scale and structure.
No two theatres are alike. From their programming to their building, their staffing structures to their funding arrangements – even down to how they run their bar – there is no set structure for running a theatre. Many theatres have been in operation for decades – even hundreds of years – and in many theatres there are strong operational traditions which still play a part in the way they run today.
Leaving aside the large West End Theatre – which are basically all receiving houses – there are fundamentally three kinds of regional or non-West-End theatre.
1. Receiving Theatres
Receiving theatres are effectively venues for hire. They ‘receive’ productions and events in a relatively passive way and may not have any artistic policies. Companies pay the theatre a hire fee to use their facilities. The services provided by a receiving theatre vary considerably, and may range from simply providing a space with no other services available to supplying a full range of services including marketing, technical and box office services.
Receiving theatres are run by a General Manager or Manager who will report to a regional manager or to a Board or Committee. Many receiving theatres are operated by local authorities, which will mean there is not even a General Manager in charge of the theatre. In fact, in most local authority run theatres, there is no single individual responsible for the operation of the theatre. This lack of accountability is never a good thing.
Local Authorities, while they may have the best intentions, are not well-suited to operating theatres. They are excellent at maintaining facilities, but they sadly rarely understand or wish to understand the business of theatre, and tend to see the operation of a theatre as a service that they must reluctantly provide and pay for rather than an entrepreneurial business venture selling the magic of a great night out. This is why so many council-operated theatres run at a loss, and also why most council-operated theatres are strictly receiving houses. Councils may be superb at many things, but they are not noted for their artistic or entrepreneurial abilities.
While receiving theatres remain the most common form of theatre outside London – and many fringe theatres in London are effectively receiving theatres – there is a perception in recent years that receiving theatres should seek to operate more as presenting theatres, particularly where they are located in an area without a producing theatre. The argument goes that presenting theatres take more of an artistic leadership role in their communities, which is more likely to ensure their survival.
Receiving theatres are often run on a commercial basis. This is a double-edged sword. In some cases, this can lead to a lack of investment in the theatre building’s infrastructure, or frequent changes of management. Commercial management can also lead to a certain ‘soul-less’ or ‘chain’ aesthetic, where the theatre loses its individuality and – more seriously – its links to the local community. Where these situations develop, commercial management can be detrimental to the long-term health of a theatre.
However, in the case of large ‘civic’ theatres, commercial management can have significant benefits, including just the kind of investment that theatres need to remain profitable and open. Additionally, commercial managements will frequently own a number of theatre buildings, giving them a better negotiating position with artists and agents.
In general, it’s my view that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing a receiving house. Commercial management offers significant benefits for the larger town or city receiving theatre, but is not well-suited to smaller provincial or regional theatres. Most major cities will have a mixture of commercial receiving theatres, smaller independent or charitable receiving theatres, a larger presenting theatre and a producing theatre, all fulfilling different needs.
However, I do agree that non-chain or ‘free’ receiving theatres should seriously consider whether they should develop artistic policies and become presenting theatres – or even co-producing theatres. A theatre that’s making theatre as well as selling it will always gather more public interest and support than a ‘community hall’ receiving house.
2. Presenting Theatres
Presenting theatres are often significantly more complex than receiving theatres. They ‘present’ programming in an active way, choosing artistic product that is in line with the theatre’s artistic policies and to appeal to the theatre’s audiences.
They will normally provide a full range of services including marketing, technical, and box office services. They may assist in the ‘manufacturing’ of artistic product through mounting co-productions, developing relationships with artists and companies and seeking to provide artistic leadership or focus.
Good presenting theatres offer a full programme of high-quality professional events, are open four-plus nights a week, have a good bar and restaurant, offer educational opportunities, and attract a loyal and frequently-attending clientele. They are run by an Artistic Director, who is responsible for the artistic policies of the theatre. In a healthy relationship, a not-for-profit presenting theatre will receive a certain amount of funding from the local authority for running the theatre. Given the proven economic benefits of a theatre’s activites to its community, this ‘arms-length’ funding makes excellent sense for all parties.
The deals they do with companies are often more complex than a straight hire, reflecting their closer relationship with companies. UK presenting theatres include many regional and provincial theatres. The Maltings Theatre, Berwick is a good example, or The Northcott Theatre, Exeter.
Well-run presenting theatres – particularly those that co-produce – can make a strong case for the support of their community, and there is no doubt in my mind that many receiving houses should strongly consider a move towards presenting in order to consolidate their position.
It’s fair to say that the best presenting theatres usually would like to do more producing. In line with this entirely worthwhile and commendable aspiration, many presenting theatres have begun to explore co-producing as a way of having more theatre made within their building. They will work with a local theatre company to make a show which opens at their theatre, then may tour to other theatres. This kind of co-production can be very successful if the parameters and contract are clear at the start. It’s certainly an excellent way to get some artists back into the building.
3. Producing Theatres
Producing theatres are the most complex of all theatres, and best fit the public’s idea of how a ‘proper’ theatre works. The first producing houses were founded in the Elizabethan period, the most famous of which was The Globe Theatre, with its resident company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Producing theatres combine a resident theatre company of actors, directors etc with a theatre building. Hence The Royal Shakespeare Company are the resident company at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company are the resident company at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre (Which is in fact called The Theatre Royal, Bristol, but is widely known by the name of the company in residence). Producing theatres ‘manufacture’ artistic product in-house, often as well as presenting other companies work.
At the larger end – the Royal Shakespeare Theatre & Company, The Royal National Theatre & Company – they are huge organisations who employ hundreds of staff across a multitude of departments concerned with the manufacture of theatre – set design, costume making, wig making, prop making, etc, with full time resident companies of actors etc. Sadly, the larger kind of producing theatre is becoming increasingly rare. Thirty years ago almost every major city – and a lot of the lesser centres – in the UK had a producing theatre at their heart providing employment and making theatre.
Here’s a useful list of some of the major UK producing theatres, in no particular order: