Cork Report aims to improve British theater's business side

British theater, which has cultivated a nearly peerless reputation for excellence, with the help of hefty government subsidies, needs to become more entrepreneurial in order to survive. So says Sir Kenneth Cork, one of the most respected and knowledgeable theatrical observers here. The unprecedented, 95-point Cork report recommends an overhaul of the massive state-funded portion of British theater. The report was presented last September and endorsed in April (with two exceptions) by the Arts Council, Britain's public funding body for the performing arts.

``We've got the best theater in the world. It is our best export,'' says Sir Kenneth. ``At the same time, all the subsidized theater companies in Great Britain are in a chronic disaster.''

The Cork report calls for some of the most innovative changes in more than a quarter-century.

These include the first specific guidelines on remuneration for transfer productions - those successful shows, such as the recent Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) hit ``Les Mis'erables,'' that move from a subsidized to a commercial theater.

Other recommendations address the financial and management problems besieging Britain's 55 subsidized regional theaters and 30 subsidized touring companies.

The inquiry report, which was submitted by an independent committee of theater professionals headed by Sir Kenneth, was requested by the British government and the Arts Council in response to growing concern about the current and future health of British theater.

In a interview with the Monitor, Sir Kenneth, who is also a former chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a respected accounting and theater business expert, repeated the need for sweeping financial reform among Britain's subsidized theaters.

``When the Arts Council was first set up in the 1940s, it was given a lot of money to fund companies,'' said Sir Kenneth. ``But once the companies are funded, there is very little option [about how to fund them differently] the next year. It's a bottomless pit, and the theaters lose face by constantly relying on this begging bowl [approach.]

``The whole [government funding] thing has to be rethought,'' he added. ``The Arts Council must become more entrepreneurial in its approaches. We need to organize funding for theater as a whole with new schemes.''

Sir Kenneth's personal recommendations - beyond the scope of the official report - range from modifying Britain's tax laws to stimulate charitable giving, to instigating new theater promotional arrangements that would better draw on the support of private industry.

He also recommends earmarking a percentage of Arts Council funding to produce transfer shows, as a way of recouping a greater commercial return for the subsidized theaters. And he suggests using theater funding as a way to foster urban renewal in economically depressed regions.

``There is general criticism in this country that London gets an unfair proportion of government [arts] funding,'' he says, adding that ``unlike the United States, private industry here only wants to fund big companies in London, not the regions. But one of the better and cheaper ways to bring life back to the depressed city centers is to revivify the theaters. Look at Stratford. There are 15 hotels and any number of other retail operations that succeed solely because of the Royal Shakespeare Company theaters there.''

Sir Kenneth's proposals are considered groundbreaking, because unlike its more independent American counterpart, British theater has established its reputation on a decades-old tradition of generous state patronage.

The result has been an impressive network of theaters, including the two world-renowned national companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. However, the stringent economic policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have caused a financial squeeze among the subsidized theaters, which receive 25 to 50 percent of their operating budgets from the government.

As a result, theater professionals here cite problems: a decline in the number of large-scale classical productions, a shortage of qualified Shakespearean actors, and a growing tendency by the RSC and the National Theatre to rely on commercial earnings.

``Many companies are in a very serious position now, says Ian Brown, drama director for the Arts Council. ``And next year is going to be even more difficult. There used to be some flexibility in finding them [government] funding, but now there is a real tightening of money.''

Although the Cork report calls for as much as 14 million ($23 million) of additional government subsidy to supplement the current 26 million [$43 million] Arts Council theater budget, it is the other, unorthodox proposals that are getting the most attention here.

One controversial proposal in the report called for a special levy on the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation as a recompense to theater for developing much of the talent seen in British TV dramas. Although that proposal was subsequently unendorsed by the Arts Council, it is indicative of the iconoclastic attitudes reflected in the report.

Indeed, one of the report's chief recommendations is the establishment of a consortium of six regional theater companies to better utilize existing resources as well as boost those companies' status vis-`a-vis the prestigious London-based RSC and National Theatre. ``We're becoming more and more divided into two countries - London and the regions,'' says Sir Kenneth. ``We need to have the whole country served by excellence in the arts.''

Despite the endorsement of more than 90 percent of his report by the Arts Council, any government implementation of the proposals must await further recommendation by Arts Council chairman William Rees-Mogg.

He has already termed the report a ``milestone in the history of public funding for theater in Britain.''

No changes are expected to be made until the coming fiscal year, which starts next April.

``Quite frankly, disaster will ensue if these proposals are not adopted,'' says Sir Kenneth, who is currently at work on an Arts Council follow-up report due later this year.

``The whole thing is going broke,'' he says. ``Without real changes, the whole thing will simply continue to deteriorate.''

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