The Arts Council cuts six months on

Rod Dixon, artistic director of Red Ladder theatre company.
Rod Dixon, artistic director of Red Ladder theatre company.
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Six months on from the last round of Arts Council funding, Sarah Freeman catches up with those who lost out to discover whether the show can still go on.

The date of July 10, 2014 is one that Rod Dixon will never forget. That was the day the Arts Council made its latest funding announcement and Red Ladder, the theatre company where he is artistic director was among the biggest losers.

Stripped of its National Portfolio Organisation status, overnight the plug was pulled on the £160,000 of funding the Leeds-based company received each year. Red Ladder wasn’t alone. Huddersfield’s Dark Horse, which both produces work and trains actors with learning disabilities, was also shunned. After 14 years of consecutive funding, it was told its application had been unsuccessful and they would no longer be receiving investment worth £100,000 a year.

While very different theatre companies, the news was equally devastating and six months on, the decision still hurts. Both are now in a race against time to secure new funding streams before the last of the Arts Council money runs out in April. They also know that however successful those new bids turn out to be, the money will likely be only a small proportion of the amount they used to get from the Arts Council and their plans for the future have already been scaled back.

Naturally optimistic, Dixon has tried to look for positives in the fall out from the announcement. One undoubtedly has been an increased profile. Red Ladder, a company which wears its socialist politics on its sleeve, has enjoyed more coverage in the mainstream press in the last six months than it has in the previous six years.

Partly that has been down to a number of celebrity backers. Former Monty Python Terry Jones spoke in support of the company, which has just unveiled a new musical based on his book of fairytales Nicobobinus, as has David Peace. The Leeds author has given the company the rights to stage his award-winning novel Damned United based on Brian Clough’s turbulent 44-days in charge at Elland Road. Opening night won’t be until 2016 and even having run a successful crowd-funding campaign, Dixon admits that the next 12 months could prove critical.

“We have had an unbelievable amount of support and the crowd-funding campaign now stands at £20,000. That’s an incredible total, but just a fraction of what we used to receive from the Arts Council.

“It would be wrong to say I feel a sense of despair. I don’t, but it’s not going to be easy. Red Ladder has always taken productions to places where theatre doesn’t normally go. We perform in rugby clubs and in former pit towns, so we will apply to the Arts Council’s strategic touring fund, but again that won’t be as much as we previously received.”

In between firing off grant applications and keeping the name of Red Ladder in the spotlight, Dixon says there has been an awful lot of head scratching among those linked to the company.

“The Arts Council has been making curious noises recently saying arts organisations face cuts in their funding if they fail to tackle diversity. I’m not sure what they mean by that. I don’t know of any arts organisation which would say, ‘sorry, we only work with white actors and only perform for white audiences’.

“To become a National Portfolio Organisation you have to jump through numerous hoops and I am still not sure why we failed to make the cut. Red Ladder has always created work which brings a very different kind of audience into the theatre. To me that’s diversity, but I can’t agonise over the reasons why we lost out, we just have to see if we can find a way through.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Vanessa Brooks, artistic director of Dark Horse. Since the funding announcement they have already had to let one of just three full-time members of staff go and cancel a new touring production, which had already been cast.

“One of our actors Toby Meredith, who has Down Syndrome, was the lead and was obviously disappointed when we told him the play was being cancelled, but he took it on the chin. He knows that without that funding there are things we can simply no longer do.”

Like Dixon, Brooks knows the value of a famous face. In the last six months she has written letters to dozens of actors with Alan Bennett, Derek Jacobi, Miriam Margolyes, Ian McKellen all making welcome donations.

“It amounts to a couple of thousand pounds for which we are really grateful, but we know it’s not a sustainable funding stream,” says Brooks. “The business model we had was a good one, a great one even, but there seems to me to have been a shift away from investing in learning disabled organisations and towards those whose focus is black and minority ethnic groups.

“Maybe its cyclical, but if we can’t find new investment the future will look bleak.”

As well as staging their own devised work, Dark Horse also operates an academy training learning disabled actors to work in the profession.

“There are lots of community arts organisations out there which do some great work, but what we do here is very different,” says Brooks. “Our students come here because they want to work as actors and we have been very successful at giving them the foundation to do just that.”

Vanessa also worries that if the company has to permanently downsize it will damage the profile of learning disabled actors in general.

Money from the Arts Council represented 30 per cent of Dark Horse’s core funding and like all of those who lost out, it won’t be able to apply for NPO status again until 2018. By then, four years of straitened finances may have already taken its toll.

The company is about to lodge an application for funding with Grants for the Arts. Once submitted it will have to wait 12 weeks for a decision, but even if successful it won’t be enough to reinstate their full programme of touring.

“Basically, it will just allow us to keep the academy up and running, “ says Brooks. “But we know we may have to look at how we operate. Setting up a more community focused branch of the theatre would be a quite significant change to how we have always operated, but it might be something we have to do.”

Back at Red Ladder, Dixon is looking forward to the company’s next production. It is currently being written by Boff Whalley, formerly guitarist with Chumbawamba and a long-time collaborator with Red Ladder.

“Its’ about zero hours contracts,” he says. “In fact it’s about more than that. Whatever any politician or council leader tells you, there is still money in the system, the problem is that it’s not going to the right places.

“These are the kind of stories that Red Ladder has always told and right now, there is a need for companies like ours who give a voice to the concerns ordinary people.”