Is community theatre on the brink of extinction?

The Land Girls of Yorkshire was one of Kate Bramley's original plays which has toured the county.
The Land Girls of Yorkshire was one of Kate Bramley's original plays which has toured the county.
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It’s David against Goliath says Kate Bramley as the big hits from the National and the RSC together with skewed arts funding threaten the future of community theatre.

Over and over again I hear people working in theatre talking about their art, their vision and their drive. When, I ask myself did they stop saying simple things like ‘I run a theatre’ or ‘I put on plays?’ What happened to the soul-searching questions, “Who are the audience and what do they want?’

I grew up in Cornwall in the wonderful heyday of Mike Shepherd and Bill Mitchell’s Kneehigh Theatre Company, which saw local tales, myths, and legends, re-imagined and re-drawn in a larger than life style. Everyone was invited whether they were five or 95..

My own apprenticeship came in the late 1990s under John Godber at the old Hull Truck Theatre. I still recall one of my earliest conversations with John that started with the question - what is the most important thing in theatre? The answer? The audience. A colleague from that time recently reminded me that some teens from the town came to see a modern-dress Shakespeare and ate their chips during the show. At ‘Truck it was allowed.

Now I write new comedies for a network of rural touring venues. In my head, we are trying to trace an unbroken line back to the travelling players of the great age of Shakespeare, where your reputation is only as good as your last show, and people only stay if you’re worth staying for.

Last year we launched our ‘No Hall Too Small’ series to try and get further into communities where people couldn’t or wouldn’t access theatre. Our actors are just as likely to be seen on a BBC series or at the high-profile regional repertory theatres, as on tour for us. Thanks to recent small grant support from the Arts Council we can just about make ends meet.

For me this is where the heart of theatre is. Community theatre is what I was brought up on, where I learned my trade and it is the reason I still want to work as a director after 24 years.

But, I’m sick of feeling like I’m being patted on the head by contemporaries who see rural touring as some quaint training ground for drama students. Many of our local halls and small venues are also wrangling with the lucrative yet damaging option of being able to live stream NT Live or RSC productions. I know many high profile arts writers believe that the streaming revolution is bringing people to the theatre. Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s nearly enough to compensate for the damage done to theatre itself.

The voices at the back of my head say: “Why aren’t Helen Mirren and David Tennant, or at the very least their young counterparts, on tour with these performances? Why aren’t they in my pub or my village hall, or even my theatre, making me a part of their performance?

During the last eight years I’ve written 12 original full-length plays, as well as a couple of bespoke scripts for young actors. I’ve had thousands of conversations with audiences right up and down the country. And I’m not the only one. There are plenty of great writers, directors, performers and companies chipping away out there, so why does it have to be such a struggle to get taken seriously?

Our kind of theatre is very much alive. It just doesn’t have any heavy hitters to shout about it. Nor does it have the luxury of rich patrons.

I’m not saying that I have a greater claim to government or private support, but I just want a level playing field, one where the bulk of the money doesn’t go to who can shout the loudest. We talk of the theatre as part of our rich cultural fabric – well our kind of theatre is the patchwork quilt that becomes an heirloom long after the trendy duvet covers have faded.

Theatre has given folk an opportunity to share ideas since history began, a starting point for great conversations. Let’s not press the pause button.

Kate Bramley is the director of Green Hammerton-based Bad Apple Theatre company.