On 11th June 2019 the Earl of Glasgow led a short debate on the question to Government, “what assessment they have made of the operation of the theatre market in (1) London, and (2) elsewhere in the United Kingdom; and what steps they are taking to ensure that theatre is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.” The Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Dr Christopher John Cocksworth, asked a follow-up question:
The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, even though the Arts Council analysis of theatre in England reveals how the Midlands is underserved in theatre, I speak from a diocese that has international, national, regional and local treasures, and from a city that will be the UK’s City of Culture in 2021.
The million or so people of Coventry and Warwickshire are rich in creativity and are reaching out for the sort of accessibility that is the intention of the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, whom I thank for securing this important debate and for his wide-ranging introductory speech. I am very glad to speak in this debate, not least because I am the only speaker in costume today—fittingly dressed.
There is much I would like to say about our most renowned local theatre, the RSC in Stratford, but I will simply note its work among young people. It has an impressive accessibility scheme, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman. It works with young people across the UK in their own schools and local theatres, often in the sort of contexts where people would look on Shakespeare and theatre as belonging to a very alien world, bringing rehearsal techniques into their classrooms, listening to their reaction to Shakespeare’s abiding themes, and enabling them to see that these are their texts for their lives, and that this is a world to which they belong and through which they can interpret their world. I am told that it has engaged 1,000 schools and 600,000 children and young people over the past year. The test for the theatre market in all its forms is whether it will allow people the right of access to performance across the country that belongs to them.
I will focus on Coventry itself. I am honoured to follow the powerful speech of the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, on regionalisation. We are not a rich city: privilege is rare. We are a religiously, racially and culturally diverse city. We are a city with a young population, a creative city not only in industry and invention but in music, literature and drama. Our wartime experience shaped us for peace, reconciliation and sanctuary, yet our social inequalities and injustices are similar to those of other cities: ill health, physical and mental, poor diet, low aspiration, stubborn and deep pockets of poverty, homelessness, youth violence and the like.
All of those strengths and challenges were taken into our bid to be the UK’s City of Culture and, harnessed well by the energy of the city, were the cause of its award. Our main but by no means only theatre, the Belgrade, was built in the post-war reconstruction of Coventry: heady with ideals of democracy, accessibility and risk-taking creativity that marked those days. Over the years, to its credit, it has kept faith with that vision, expressed not so much in great art and culture for everyone but in great art and culture by, with and for everyone. It seeks to test that aspiration empirically. I should be very interested in the noble Viscount’s assessment of the Belgrade’s work with local universities to develop research frameworks that quantify impacts on inclusion and engagement, and the potential of such evidence-based approaches to support strategic interventions to increase accessibility.
The concept of a people’s theatre runs deep in Coventry: not to show people theatre that others think they should see but to work with them to produce theatre that is true to themselves, expressing and effecting the social change they want. That vision for cultural democracy is at the heart of Coventry City of Culture: Coventry-led, community-led production that represents all of Coventry’s citizens. It is less about producing big, prestige events for typical theatregoers, and more about working with community organisations in key areas where ordinary life rubs hard and where it hurts: youth exploitation, homelessness, poverty, mental health, loneliness, inequality and isolation.
I know that not every place can have access to the resources made available to a city of culture, but I am interested in the noble Viscount’s view on some of the principles involved in truly and radically increasing participation in theatre that are being trialled in Coventry at the moment, and the implications for funding and other strategic interventions, including long-term, well-targeted public subsidy. For example, cultural democracy requires performance spaces in the everyday life of the community. Coventry’s Shop Front Theatre in an old fish and chip shop is a great example. Will the Government encourage the Arts Council’s new strategy of supporting community or grass-roots venues—amateur theatres, pub theatres, church theatres, community centres, music venues and the like—recognising that the ecosystem of theatre relies on those small, fragile venues to draw people into the world of theatre and nurture new talent?
Coventry City of Culture is being much helped by the involvement of Stratford’s RSC Theatre, as well as—if I may single it out among many other local community players—Coventry’s own cathedral, which, as noble Lords might imagine, offers dramatic theatrical settings, both ancient and modern. Is that not a good model for increasing participation that is worth replicating: the great theatres of our land, with their international reach, working with town, city and regional theatres and local institutions that have performance spaces ready to be made more publicly accessible—places where the great themes of human culture have been played out in song, poetry, drama and dance for centuries?
Lord McNally (LD): My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. We all wish Coventry well as the next City of Culture. We have seen what an impact that has had on places such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Hull; I am sure that Coventry will prove just as exciting.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, indicated, there is always a danger of this debate being seen as a grumpy old Earl and his chums complaining that they cannot get the best seats. However, the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry disprove that motive…
Lord Foster of Bath (LD): …They [noble lords] all highlighted the important role that theatres play in our cultural life. They give enormous enjoyment and benefit to individuals and also benefit society as a whole in ways ranging from improved health and social care outcomes to help with regeneration, as my noble friend Lord McNally and the in-costume right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry pointed out, and regional growth…