January 23th, 2024
Pearle* Conversations: Lisa Cunningham from SOLT/UK Theatre on Theatre for Every Child
Pearle* Conversations
The Pearle* Conversations make their return in 2024, giving the floor to the Pearle* members to find out more about their work at the national level, and what topics are on their agenda these days.

We start the year with an insightful talk with Lisa Cunningham Director of Policy, Research and Advocacy at the Society of London Theatre & UK Theatre on the Theatre for Every Child campaign.

The Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre are the membership organisation for theatre producers, managers, owners and operators in London and across the UK.

Launched in October 2023, the national advocacy campaign highlights the necessity to invest in the British theatres’ future audiences and workforce by ensuring that every child has the chance to go to the theatre by the time they leave secondary school.

In our conversation with Lisa, we gain an exclusive behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mechanisms of the campaign and what it holds for the future.

First of all, could you tell us a bit more about the campaign and its aims?

With this campaign, we have two aims.

The primary aim is to help us take advantage of the fact that we're extremely likely to have a general election this year in the UK, probably in the autumn. They only come around every 4 or 5 years, and it is a lightning bolt moment to influence for positive change. One of our key aims with the campaign in the run-up to the election is to try and get as many politicians as possible to commit to the bare minimum of every child attending the theatre at least once before they leave school. Some children are going often, but plenty of children are not going at all: access isn't equal, and access has a lot of benefits, so that's unfair.

So, the campaign has a political ask around committing to that and to try and get that embedded into all parties’ manifestos in the run-up to the election.

And then our secondary aim is to shine a light on the fantastic work that's done by the sector to do this. Our sector cares deeply about its responsibility to bring as many children as possible. Our members do a lot, they think it's the right thing to do and they understand that if they want to build audience pathways and demonstrate to children the amazing careers you can have in this sector, it’s a good thing to subsidise the tickets. It can go from seeing dress rehearsals for free to structured programs with local schools, or various things that theatres and producers do to encourage and subsidise young people's access. And yes, it's not free to attend the theatre like it is to visit a museum in the UK – but museums are paid by public funds.

So, we wanted to shine a light on the excellent work that the sector does, celebrate it, and demonstrate to the Government that the sector, the schools and the parents are doing a lot and willing to do more, and yet we still have this unequal access. That's why it's right for the Government to step in to guarantee a bare minimum of one attendance before children leave school.

The campaign launched in October and since then, we’ve had a launch event, we’ve written out about 70 parliamentarians and started conversations with them about their willingness to support the campaign and we’ve gathered content from members to publish and celebrate it.

Now we're in the new year, our focus is very much on the general election. We want to continue those political conversations and try and get as much political support as possible. We’re also looking at support from other parts, perhaps stakeholders or celebrity endorsements from actors that have been through a state school system.

I think the biggest weakness of the campaign is that it’s quite specific, usually, manifestos are rather industry-wide. The government or the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, might want to do something creative-industry-wide in their manifesto rather than just about theatre. But I don’t think that that should prevent us from making the case for “if you're going to put some money behind something, theatre is a good place to put it”, nor does it prevent you from doing something culture-wide, because we all are an ecosystem that supports each other.

If we go back a bit to its origins, what prompted the creation of this campaign?

Children's access is really important and it's something that everyone can get behind. Theatre for every child is quite broad, it’s designed to be an inclusive campaign that unites the sector.

We also have evidence that supports the campaign, such as the benefits for individual children, and we've got evidence that suggests that both parents and teachers are reporting that school trips are down so there's a problem because of the cost-of-living crisis. But what we don't have is our map of access that says this is where access is good for children, this is where it's really poor. Politicians asked me what proportion of children attend the theatre at least once before they leave school, and we don't have the evidence to answer that question. We know that, and we'd like to commission some evidence to address it. We didn't want that to prevent us from launching the campaign and to start having political conversations about it. Sometimes organisations want to wait until the evidence is perfect before going out, but I think that as long as you're honest about what you have and what you don't have, and you want to fill in the gaps, that’s absolutely fine.

You’ve outlined the current steps, do you know how the campaign will evolve in the future?

It would depend on what happens with the election.

If we get a commitment in one of the main political parties' manifestos around increasing children's access to the arts, culture, theatre, and if that party came to government, then we would want to focus on implementing it. If that party lost the election, we would change the focus and show the government that the opposition committed to this, and they didn’t. After a general election, there’s often a resetting of the power play among the civil services. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) right now is a bit at the end of the queue, they’re smaller compared to some of the other departments. But depending on the mood of the country or what the new chief of government says in their first 100 days, the DCMS might reposition their power. There might be a possibility to influence some civil servants around wanting to spend some money they've got that they didn't used to have.

If we get nowhere and we get no political commitment in the run-up to the election, we might look to where the next local authority elections are and start asking them for some sort of commitment around cultural entitlement in their local areas and switch our focus. The other thing we might do is that since we have devolution in the UK, if you don't get what you want in the general election, you can speak to Scotland and say “This is a really good idea, England didn’t do it but you should”.

The political focus of the campaign will depend on what happens in the election.

If we get – hopefully – some implementation phase, we will start to be working with civil servants about what granting access to the theatre for every child can look like. Then we would need to put together some of our members to help think that through. The focus on our members will move away from “Tell us what you do” and celebrating it to “How can you help implement it?” There might be a pilot phase with some members that are particularly far ahead and successful in a specific area.

Among all the activities that are done by SOLT & UK Theatre members and celebrated through the campaign, what good practices or innovative approaches stand out?

It really depends on the nature of the member. For our more commercial members, the big companies that own quite a lot of theatres, they do quite standard subsidised tickets for young people, and many of them have programs with schools in their local areas. On the other hand, our publicly funded or publicly subsidised members, are quite embedded in their community. They bring people in for all sorts of activities: they have parent and toddler groups and then encourage people to stay and watch a rehearsal, which then translates into a relationship with the local school.

One of the most innovative things some members do, and it tends to happen for the biggest ones in London is building a program with schools. So, it's not simply about paying less, it’s also coming earlier to the theatre, and attending a workshop for the pupils to help them understand the skills required to put on a production. They can meet the actors or the curtain crew, and they can stay afterwards for a Q&A. The theatre and the schools would also jointly develop materials that the schools can take away so the children can reflect on the production, what they thought about it and what they learned. So that's probably the kind of best practice that I've seen but it depends on the nature of the venue and its relationship with its audience and its community.

Finally, how does the campaign tie into SOLT & UK Theatre’s usual activities regarding outreach?

We’re having a sort of rethink about what we do and how we do it at the moment just to make sure we're doing things as best we can and that we’re as member-focused as possible. That means that we’re also rethinking some of our outreach activities, like TheatreCraft which is about developing skills in the sector. We want to see how to do it differently, how to do it better, which is quite exciting.

We want to make sure that almost everything is about presenting our members in the best possible light and showing off the sector in its amazing glory. Because if you do that, the sector has power and influence in a positive way. The campaign does that, and we need to think actively and proactively about how our other initiatives do that.


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