Revamping urged for theater in Britain. Report cites recent declines and makes 95 recommendations

``We're ahead of the world in the thing that we've always been best at, which is theater,'' said Sir Kenneth Cork, former chairman of Britain's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. ``And we've got to keep it that way. But unless major steps are taken, it will not continue.'' Sir Kenneth was speaking at a recent press gathering at which was revealed a series of the most innovative proposals for revamping British theater in a quarter of a century.

The proposals were made by an independent committee of British theater professionals, including actress Diana Rigg and theater critic Michael Billington, and headed by Sir Kenneth himself.

Organized at the request of the British government and the Arts Council (a public funding body set up for the performing arts by the government in 1946), the committee was the product of strong criticism from many quarters around the country regarding the structure and financial development of British theater today.

Weighing the views of numerous actors, directors, producers, and theater administrators, the committee took nine months to identify just what is causing the current malaise within British theater and to come up with ideas for putting it right.

Unlike America, Britain has a well-established theatrical tradition of state patronage. This has made it possible for the country to create and sustain a number of vibrant regional theaters and touring drama groups; along with its two world-renowned national companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theater (NT), these groups, until now, have been the lifeblood of the British stage.

Public funding for British theater reached its peak in the mid-1970s under former Prime Minister James Callaghan's Labour government. Since 1979, however, with the introduction of Margaret Thatcher's monetarist policies, the picture has changed dramatically. The RSC and NT, which together receive the largest proportion of Arts Council money allocated for theater, have in particular been under increasing pressure to subsist on their commercial earnings. Furthermore, the companies are already only able to offer salaries well below what their top artists could receive in the commercial market and therefore they have to rely heavily on their prestige. The situation is made even more critical by the fact that both companies remain passionately committed to holding down the price of tickets (a top seat currently averages around $22).

But it's not only the big boys who have suffered. Regional companies, small-scale experimental works, and theatrical touring (which includes bringing NT and RSC productions to America) have also been greatly squeezed. In some instances, in fact, state funding has been reduced by almost 50 percent.

The result of these trends, in real terms, is far more poignant than the figures alone might sugguest. Indeed, the human response has been a growing feeling of gloom and doom. As Miss Rigg told me in an interview, ``In the end it boils down to the fact that, as an actor myself, I do highly paid work [films and TV] in order to subsidize myself in the subsidized theater here. But if one were paid properly, and when I say properly, I mean so you're not out of pocket for working in Manchester, Newcastle, and so on, it would make things far more satisfying. . . . Also, given the current situation, the touring system is greatly constricted . . . .''

The Cork Report makes a staggering 95 recommendations that would require investment of some 14 million ($22 million) annually into British theater. The key recommendations:

Create an entrepreneurial Theater Development Fund to help remote theaters particularly and expand theater generally.

Establish six more national companies, located in the regions, with regular cross-fertilization between the regional and the two existing national companies.

Designate certain theaters in London and the regions as ``national new-writing theaters'' and give them additional funds, according to their accomplishments in fostering new work.

Require that the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) contribute 1 percent of its annual revenue, with independent commercial TV companies contributing an equivalent sum. This would be in recompense for the superlative skills and talent that are developed in the theater sector but help maintain the high standard of British TV drama today.

Whether these proposals are to be implemented rests with the government, the Arts Council, and, of course, the public. The government's arts minister, Richard Luce, said, ``There's no doubting the importance of [the report], and I will be studying it very carefully.'' Sir William Rees-Mogg, Arts Council chairman, termed it ``a formidably thorough document, which will certainly be a milestone in the history of public funding for theater in Britain.''

So far, the BBC has remained tight-lipped, while a spokesman for the commercial Independent Broadcasting Authority told me, ``We certainly are not rejecting the idea [of a levy] in any way,'' although he did hasten to add that the authority already makes indirect contributions to the theater through its various training schemes.

And what is Sir Kenneth's expectation for the implementation of his ``milestone'' report?

``I think a lot of it will be adopted,'' he states firmly. ``I think that if you produce a logical report, by reasonably responsible people, and you've got a reasonably good lobby, which I think the arts has, I don't think any government can afford to just file it.''

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