Richard Eyre takes the helm at a `crisis point'

The multitude of challenges facing Richard Eyre, the new National Theatre artistic director, can be summed up in a few words: money, artistic manifesto, and the lack thereof. Mr. Eyre is steering England's largest government-subsidized theater through what several longtime industry observers here are calling a ``crisis point'' in the British theater.

``For the first time in [their] history ... the National and the Royal Shakespeare companies are facing a diminution in real terms of financial resources,'' said Eyre during a recent interview in his office, overlooking the Thames. ``At the same time, the line between the subsidized and commercial theater has become blurred. And that makes it difficult for audiences to know what we are.''

Indeed, while Sir Peter Hall, Eyre's controversial predecessor, surmounted obstacles to establish the National in its current South Bank home, the soft-spoken Eyre has taken on the more low-key, but no less challenging, task of maintaining Britain's flagship theater during a period of declining arts patronage.

Government subsidies for the past several years have remained steady at $13 million a year - roughly half the $25 million the theater has required annually in recent years.

Arts Council allocations to the National for the next three years are expected to run anywhere from 3 to 5 percent below the current inflation rate, ``a cut in very real terms that puts an enormous onus on boosting our self-generated income,'' according to Douglas Gosling, the theater's financial director.

Indeed, both the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company have increasingly turned to two controversial funding sources - corporate subsidy and transferring plays to commercial venues. So common was this practice during the late '70s and early '80s that Sir Peter and Trevor Nunn, the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare, were publicly accused of profiteering.

``The National has been accused of being opportunistic, but what is the theater to do?'' asks Eyre. ``We have been pushed into accepting plural funding. It's either that, or you cut your production costs or your acting ensemble. And that is cutting the theater's whole raison d'^etre.''

Eyre earned a reputation as a judicious administrator during his five-year artistic directorship of the Nottingham Playhouse, and already he has effected several changes at the National. These include elimination of Hall's multi-company system, which has been replaced by one ensemble of about 100 actors serving both the Olivier and Cottesloe Theatres. The mid-size Lyttelton will operate on a project-to-project basis.

As for what will go on stage, Eyre has hinted at a greater emphasis on visual imagery but stops short of outlining any artistic manifesto. ``Manifesto is a dangerous thing to advertise,'' says Eyre. ``It invites comparisons, and I don't think that's how the art works. I think the National exists to do the work which can't be done commercially. My artistic policy will be determined by what is seen on stage.''

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