Culture Secretary speech at Society of London Theatre’s summit
Speaking to the Society of London Theatre, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has set out her ambition to shift the balance of power in the theatre world from Broadway in New York to London’s West End
Good morning everyone, it’s a privilege and a pleasure to be here. A privilege to be asked to open your annual summit.
And a pleasure to be able to talk to all of you today, not just about the host of reasons that we know that our theatres are among the envy of the world but about how we can unlock the growth of this sector and continue to maximise the potential of theatre across the country.
And what potential there is. All of you know that theatres have an almost unique power to educate, to entertain, and to connect.
Theatres are so important to our national identity to our collective psyche as well as to our economy.
Ahead of the event today, I was reflecting on what it is that makes theatres so special.
We live in very noisy times where life can often feel like a bombardment of information and news and a trip to the theatre has always offered escapism from what is going on around us.
A chance to be alone with your thoughts reflecting on something different and interesting.
And theatre - more than almost any other art form - is so often a reflection of the state of the nation itself. A mirror to society.
Look at Jerusalem. Look at Prima Facie.
I went to see Groundhog Day recently and I must say I spotted a few small parallels with politics over the last few days.
But most of all, theatre enriches our lives. Nobody forgets a trip to the theatre and nobody forgets a moment where they saw or experienced something exceptionally original.
And we are really lucky to have fantastic theatres right across the country. Our regional strengths are on a par with our national ones, with brilliant, innovative productions in places like Sheffield, where a play like Standing at the Sky’s Edge can begin life at the Crucible and go on to win a UK theatre award, an Olivier award and now a Tony award.
Our regional theatres do so much more than simply put on shows. They nourish civic life. They serve our local communities and through their many outreach activities they play an important role in education and in social care, providing creative opportunities for the young and for the vulnerable, and supporting vibrant local networks of freelance artists.
In many towns the theatre is the main visitor attraction and at the centre of regeneration and economic renewal.
That originality and innovation is a credit to so many of you in the room today.
Whether that’s our exceptional regional theatres, and I know we have figures like Jon Gilchrist from Birmingham Hippodrome and Stephanie Sirr from Nottingham Playhouse with us today.
Or groups like Royal Shakespeare Company, The National Youth Theatre, ScreenSkills, the Roundhouse, all of whom I know are speaking later and are doing a huge amount to draw young people into the theatre.
I was so pleased to see that, just last week, to see the RSC extended its partnerships with five additional economically deprived areas. It will now give more exposure to theatre and the arts.
And I’d really like to thank SOLT for putting on such a forward-facing, positive agenda for today’s event. One with sessions that really chime with my priorities as your Secretary of State. Maximising the potential of the sector. Unlocking growth, both of audiences and revenues. And, arguably most importantly, building a pipeline of talent. I’ll come to that in a little more depth later.
But what I want to start with is Covid. Because as you all know, when the pandemic reared its ugly head in 2020, it had the potential to be a doomsday event for theatre right across the UK.
But thanks to this Government, and the collaboration between one of my predecessors, the current Deputy Prime Minister, officials in Government, and importantly many of you in the industry, here in this room today, the worst fears when buildings closed their doors were not realised.
It was a reflection of your central role in our national life that we made a £2 billion investment into preserving our culture and our heritage. That money supported hundreds of theatres up and down the country - protecting crown jewels like the National Theatre and regional gems like the Wolverhampton Grand, the theatre where Sean Connery got his first break.
Most importantly, it made sure the lights of our theatres across the country were only dimmed, and did not go out permanently.
For thousands of people, the pandemic was a period that really put into perspective just how important theatres are to millions of us, and just how vital it is that there are theatres that are local and easily accessible.
Streaming services reaped the rewards of lockdowns, when home entertainment was the only option, but they couldn’t replace the visceral draw of live action.
The buzz that surrounds theatres is a heartening reminder that there is nothing like being in the room where it happens.
And you could see that in how theatres roared back to life in the years since that time. After two years during which so much of life was lived through our screens and our headphones, sharing an artistic experience with a group of other people in the same physical space felt more intense, more intimate and more of an experience.
I certainly found that the long absences we all spent from auditoriums added an extra charge to the experience when we were back in them.
And that’s a feeling I know was shared by actors, dancers, singers, musicians, front-of-house and backstage staff as well as ticket-holders.
And if there was one event, one moment that really captured the strength of the bounceback from Covid, it would have to be this year’s Oliviers at the Royal Albert Hall in April. An event that SOLT is responsible for organising and one where the grandest prizes went to such an eclectic mix of shows. A Tennessee Williams classic with a red-hot star from the silver screen, the hip-hop suffragette musical Sylvia, a one-woman show by an Australian former lawyer, performed by Jodie Comer making her stage debut, a show that has been so successful that it has been exported to Broadway and has won Jodie a Tony award.
It was evidence - if ever there was any needed - that British theatre is today in a far livelier condition than seemed possible three years ago after the first Covid lockdown began just after Easter.
That is owed to your dedication, to your passion and to your resilience, and the Government is proud to have played a role in supporting the sector.
It’s a collaboration that I, as your Culture Secretary, want to continue to nurture.
Your engagement and compelling evidence helped me to make the case to Government for the extension of the higher rate of theatre tax relief at Spring Budget.
There is no doubt in my mind that this government really understands the importance of theatre, of opera and of music.
Helen Mirren said that theatres are central to the ‘identity of our nation’ and ’embedded in what it means to be British’. And I wholeheartedly agree.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of acting in school plays and being involved in theatre productions.
I was first exposed to acting when I was about seven like many people across the country enjoying an after school drama class. I played Alice in our adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. And I even had a go at directing my form class version of Blithe Spirit which, I think, lived up to Noël Coward’s billing as “an improbable farce in three acts”. Or at least the farce part.
Today I’m a Culture Secretary in a Cabinet full of Culture Secretaries.
With a Chancellor who was formerly Culture Secretary, an admirer of Jez Butterworth and Gethsemane, whose favourite play is King Lear and favourite piece of music, Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto.
A Deputy Prime Minister who was also once a Culture Secretary, who spent his childhood on school trips from his comprehensive in Watford travelling by minibus to see Les Misérables, Blood Brothers and An Inspector Calls and who would eventually take to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe in a music youth theatre group, in a Victorian melodrama show, Murder in the Red Barn.
And to top it off, a Prime Minister who instigated the Cultural Recovery Fund and increased the rate of theatre tax relief whilst he was Chancellor and used one of his very, very, very few nights off he ever gets recently, to go and see Guys and Dolls.
Now, why does any of that matter? Well I think it matters because you can see that passion for the arts in what the Government actually does.
In the Culture Recovery Fund, the Cultural Investment Fund, in the tax reliefs that have helped theatres thrive. And as of the last fortnight, in the Creative Industries Vision.
This is a vision for how our entire Creative Industries - of which theatres are an indispensable part - can thrive not just in 2023 or 2024, but for decades to come.
It is about maximising the potential of these industries, about shaping a pipeline of talent.
And I know that these are ideas that SOLT and your members have been thinking about long and hard - I’ve seen that in your Thriving Theatres plan. And I’ve heard it directly from many of you, along with my friend and colleague Lord Parkinson.
Measures like the investment in research and development or the increased focus on skills through Skills Bootcamps and the upcoming Cultural Education Plan.
We want children at school to be given the freedom and the opportunity to explore their creativity. To find out for themselves, that ‘all the world’s a stage.’
And skills development is something that I know is a big part of SOLT’s agenda, and of theatres across the country.
When people discuss success they rightly invoke drive, work ethic, wealth. But they rarely mention imagination. A crucial measurement of success, a determinant of success, is your sense of the possible and theatres are one of the places that give this to young people.
Taken together, we want the Creative Industries Vision to be something that paves the way for a shift in the balance of power from Broadway to the West End.
I know you all share in that ambition and work tirelessly to ensure theatres draw in audiences right across the country night-after-night.
And we therefore have much of the foundations already.
In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s essay in The New York Times, marking the closing of Phantom of the Opera, he highlighted the punishing economics that made it harder to put on shows on Broadway.
And that is not to say the situation is perfect in the West End. But the mix of theatre you find in London looks stronger than ever at the moment.
And we want to work with all of you to make the West End a magnet for the best productions, the best directors and the best playwrights in the business.
To help nurture the next generation of Cameron Mackintosh, Sonia Friedman and Nica Burns. And to have the skills base that will give our auditoriums the gravitational pull needed to draw in that talent.
The Creative Industries Vision is the starting gun on that endeavour.
There is clearly further to go. But our starting base is an exceptionally strong one - built by all of you in the room today.
I want to continue working with you, and learning from you, to grow the creative excellence that people travel from all over the world to see in our theatres.
So thank you once again for your invitation to speak to you all today. You’ve got a packed day ahead of you and I look forward to hearing more about the ideas and talking points after the event.