There were always going to be winners and losers when the Arts Council announced who it would fund through the National Portfolio Organisation. For radical theatre group Red Ladder it was a catastrophic blow: they lost every penny.
The Leeds-based company now has no public funding for its left-of-centre work which recently included a one woman show about the suffragettes, and a newly premiered work reflecting on the role of women during the miners’ strike.
“The initial reaction was of huge disappointment as I believe as a company we are in a much better state and our output is much stronger and more prolific than three years ago when we were accepted into the portfolio in the last round”, says Red Ladder’s producer Chris Lloyd. “I think what we do is much more joined up and more robust, creative and flexible than we were then.”
Red Ladder attempts to make sense of working class culture and the role of citizens like the suffragettes who make a stand against injustice. The Tweetosphere lit up with support for the company with many people feeling this may have been a politically motivated decision.
“We are very a rare breed, and in terms of central funding we are virtually a non-existent type of theatre company,” muses Lloyd. “We’re not about supporting the Labour Party, the Communist Party or the Socialist Workers Party as that’s not our agenda at all, so I did think Arts Council might keep us in, not irrespective of the work, just to keep that balance and they couldn’t be accused of that. I thought because we are political and we are quite unabashed to say so that might be our unique selling point.”
Some of the big Northern companies received increases in their multi-million pound subsidies for work some critics claim is elitist in tone with high ticket prices, while Red Ladder argues that it has deliberately tried to reach out to non-traditional audiences.
“A couple of areas we worked hard on is generating new audiences for existing venues in the last five or six years for places like the West Yorkshire Playhouse, City Varieties and the Carriageworks so it is incumbent on those venues to maintain a relationship with their new customers. The other thing we do is we generate new performance areas so we’ve just recently completed a tour of rugby league grounds, which I don’t think any other theatre company can claim, so we are generating new devotees of the arts.
“It’s about taking work to areas where people feel comfortable watching at prices that doesn’t preclude people from attending. The strength of our application was that our ticket prices allow most people to get to see us which was where the subsidy was funnelled into to keep ticket prices down.”
Tweets supporting the company were comprised of a mixture of anger at the cut as well as numerous offers to help. This quickly turned into a viral campaign set up by a team of supporters using the platform localgiving.com to launch #gisatenner asking all the company’s Twitter supporters to donate a tenner. This would raise £80,000 to rescue one touring show.
But the Red Ladder team were still shocked at the level of support they received, which included a donation from actor Sam West and an anonymous gift of £800.
“Our artistic director Rod Dixon is our Twitter guru and I think being a luddite I was amazed at the speed of it,” says Lloyd.“The speed and volume is astonishing and I picked up very early in the wave of support that the industry was keen to express their sadness at the decision but also to support us to keep going.
“The other thing has been a flood of support, anger and solidarity from people we don’t know, but we’ve touched over the years. Maybe it is somebody whose first encounter with culture was at a youth club or school which we played in 1974.
“I think the legacy of the company is what we come back to because although it is a 2014 decision we have 45 years where we have touched people’s lives and made a profound impact on certain people. To be reminded of that makes us more determined to carry on in some shape or form.”
One of the unseen long term repercussions of cutting funding for small companies is the impact it will have on the talent pipeline for the bigger companies who still enjoy large subsidises.
“I suppose like a lot of small companies we are the grassroots of the industry so we are like the Halifax Town of football where actors cut their teeth and learn their trade,” notes Lloyd. “Without small companies the legions of actors who come out of theatre school, or the technicians who come out of BECTU training, or creative designers would have nowhere to go, and without that sort of eco system the big organisations wouldn’t have the pool of talent they have.
“It’s all very well being trained, but if no-one gets the chance to ply their trade and learn skills that supply will dry up.”
Not surprisingly for a company which has always seen itself on the side of people prepared to question authority, Red Ladder is determined to fight back, buoyed by the solidarity shown by its supporters.
“Obviously we knew there was a chance we might not get onto the portfolio as we had a big cut last time. Over the past few years we have built very strong links with venues, the trade unions, artists and other collaborators, and the last three projects we have done haven’t been centrally funded.
“We’re a small company of two people which expands and contracts when we need to so this is not the end and it is a chance to continue without the constraints central funding can bring.
“It’s not the end; it’s the beginning of a different chapter.”
Main image is from upcoming show Nicobobinus. The other image is from Red Ladder’s new We’re Not Going Back.