In the 1990s, Britain's theatre enjoyed a golden age, thanks to our national addiction to the National Lottery. Now that the public is kicking the habit, it seems theatres are out of luck
Just a few years ago, the construction industry had a big role in several dramatic productions. Generous lottery funding launched flagship projects such as the redevelopments of the Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells in London, the Lowry Centre in Manchester, the Sage Music Centre in Gateshead and the Milton Keynes theatre. Now, everything's changed: the sector has suddenly found itself strapped for cash. Funding from the lottery has dried up and direct government subsidy has failed to make up the difference. Theatres that drew up business plans and architectural designs in the confident expectation of being able to carry them out have had an unpleasant surprise.

Peter Longman, director of The Theatres Trust, a government-funded body that promotes the protection of theatres, points to the irony that funding has slumped at the same time as theatre audiences have reached an all-time high. "We estimate that £1bn is needed for refurbishment of theatres in the UK. Across the country there are proposals for developments but there simply isn't enough money to go round. Theatres in Brighton, Bristol, Glasgow, Sunderland, Oxford, Portsmouth and Leeds remain untouched because they can't find the money."

And it's not just theatre audiences that are suffering. In recent years, theatres have played an important role in kick-starting regeneration in deprived areas. "The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh was being used for bingo until a new stage and glass frontage was completed," says Longman. "It has boosted custom to the surrounding bars and restaurants and revived the area." The Theatres Trust is working on a theatre in Doncaster's Waterdale district, an area in need of regeneration. But this project, along with the refurbishment of London's Hackney Empire, will be the last major regeneration centred on theatre investment.

For most of the past decade, the bulk of capital funding for theatre projects has come from the Arts Council's share of lottery funds. But with fewer people playing the lottery, there is less money available overall. That trend has coincided with a policy decision to switch support from theatres to theatre companies. "There won't be any more big building projects," said an Arts Council spokesperson. "When we first distributed lottery money, it went to bricks and mortar stuff. It was specifically targeted at building projects." Now, the stress is on increasing the number of grants by decreasing their individual value. And the emphasis has changed from art buildings to arts projects such as touring companies.

The Arts Council funds theatre construction and restoration as part of its capital programme. The Theatres Trust's Longman used to be responsible for the building scheme at the Arts Council. "At its height, between 1995 and 1998, there was as much as £300m a year for arts buildings," he says. This was reduced to £40m for the second tranche of project awards. He expects the forthcoming proposal to be "£40-50m again", but points out that this will be spread over "the next three years for arts buildings". He calculates that the grant for buildings is one-sixth that of its peak. "It will now be heavily oversubscribed," he says.

The Arts Council confirms Longman's prediction: "The expected annual allocation of lottery funds is well below £5m per region – the honeymoon period is definitely over," said a spokesperson.

"The first round of lottery cash funded some really grand buildings; they were flagship projects," says Nick Thompson, a partner in the arts team at RHWL, architect for the redevelopment of London's Sadler's Wells. Other grandiose schemes funded under the first round of lottery cash included the £25m Royal Court Theatre and the £214m Royal Opera House, both in London. Although funding for the second round of projects was considerably less, grants were still big enough to pay for projects such as John McAslan's £25m refurbishment of the Roundhouse in Camden, north London and Herzog & de Meuron's £23m Laban Centre for contemporary dance in Deptford, south London.

RHWL is currently working on the last of the big arts schemes: the Coliseum – home of the English National Opera – and the Prince of Wales Theatre. Once these two projects are completed, there will be little else on a similar scale to take their place. "Lottery money has been spread too widely and too thin. There's no really worthwhile funding coming through for big projects," says Thompson. Theatres Trust's Longman cites the example of the Unicorn Children's Theatre, on the same site as London's City Hall, as an example of the impact reduced funding is having. He says the Unicorn Theatre had to lay off its design team as the theatre was only offered £5m by the Arts Council. "If they had applied three years ago, they would have received £15m," he says.

The Arts Council argues that the need for large new theatres no longer exists. "A huge number of buildings went up in the early years, but it would be crazy to keep building for the sake of it," says the spokesperson. That may be true, but the squeeze is now being felt by theatre owners who want to refurbish and modernise. "People love the magical auditoria designed by greats like Frank Matcham but many of them were not built to last," says Longman.

RHWL's Thompson predicts that without Arts Council funding, theatre development will shift from new-build projects to converting existing buildings, such as town halls. "Local authorities have started to realise that they need theatre venues. A few old halls have been contracted out to developers already."

Local authorities can sometimes strike a deal with developers by trading an arts facility for development rights on a valuable piece of land – Croydon's Fairfield Halls are a good example. This is feasible only in areas where land values are high, and many theatre owners are turning to alternative money pots such as the Heritage Lottery Fund. HLF funds are on offer to theatres with high heritage value with plans for sensitive reburbishments rather than full-scale modernisations. An HLF spokesperson says: "We can support a few arts buildings with capital grants but they must have a high heritage merit. We also receive joint applications with the Arts Council on buildings that are grade I or II* and give priority to public or charitable ownership buildings." According to Longman, more than £100m is being sought from the HLF at the moment. In such instances – for example the Hackney Empire or RHWL's Prince of Wales Theatre project – additional funding has to be found from private sources.

With the Arts Council unable or unwilling to fund large projects, the construction of landmark theatres is unlikely. The next generation of theatre projects will be more modest productions, funded by planning gain, committed communities or private donors.

Theatres awaiting funding

New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
This Frank Matcham theatre has been turned down twice for lottery funding. The back of the stage area has been refurbished, but the auditoriums and foyer needs between £4m and £8m worth of repairs. Michael Major, chairman of the trustees for the New Theatre Royal, is looking to get a studio theatre built on the land at the back of the main venue. “We have taken it down a different road in order to secure funding next time,” says Major. “We are planning to build a community-based centre for the arts, rather than just a theatre, to become part of regeneration in Portsmouth. With this new approach, the project will be saved.”

The New Theatre Royal has applied for money under the Capital Arts Programme 3, which should be allocated this year. Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
After receiving half of the funding needed for redevelopment from the Arts Council lottery fund, the Lyric is struggling to whip up the extra money. Plans to build a new entrance, rehearsal space and education room have been postponed until the remaining £2.6m can be found. Neil Bartlett, artistic director of the Lyric, has managed to raise £2m and is appealing to private funding for £551,933. Queen’s and Gielgud Theatres
After privately funding RHWL’s £7m renovation of the Prince of Wales Theatre, impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh has turned his attention to the Queen’s Theatre and the Gielgud Theatre. Nick Allott, managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, says: “Things will definitely be on hold despite the urgent need to update theatre facilities in London. The economics are really tight, but there’s a public responsibility to protect theatres.”

Planning is in the early stages but cannot get off the ground because the proposed figures are inconceivably high, given the current state of funding. The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds is in the final application stages of the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is applying for £2m towards project cost of between £6m and £7m; the move comes after an unsuccessful appeal to the Arts Council. Colin Blumenau, the director of the theatre, says that after 20 years of funding problems and planning, the Georgian playhouse must merit some money. “The Theatre Royal is one of only eight grade-I theatres in the country and we want to take it back to its former glory of 1819,” says Blumenau. “We have a detailed plan for refurbishment and renovation and just need the money to begin building.”

Dumfries Theatre Royal
The Dumfries Theatre Royal has completed the feasibility stage of a second application for Scottish Arts Council’s funding – the first was not successful. The Theatre Royal is Scotland’s oldest working theatre and was opened in 1792. Despite the historic significance of the Royal, the trust’s view is that the best way of restoring the building would be to undertake a fairly drastic gutting and to begin again.

Hackney Empire – one show that’s going on

The boards of the legendary Hackey Empire have been trodden by all-time greats such as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd. On 31 July this year, the Empire will re-open after a massive overhaul that should attract today’s stars to the deprived London borough. But things have not been easy for the £15m project, which involves redeveloping the stage and backstage area, auditorium, foyer, and an adjacent pub. Despite the local community’s passion for the Empire and thousands of eager ticket-buyers, the redevelopment has been waiting its cue since the theatre narrowly escaped demolition in 1986. Five years after the owners commissioned their first set of designs, the Arts Council suffered stage fright and rejected their £28m application for the project. The scheme was redesigned to reduce costs and preserve original features, and planning permission was eventually granted in January 2000. “The auditorium was socially stratified and it was almost impossible for people to move from tier to tier. We decided not to alter this, and avoided building something which the community wouldn’t recognise,” says architect Tim Ronalds. The original architect, prolific theatre designer Frank Matcham, gave the Empire steel cantilevered balconies, a Moorish rococo interior, and an early form of air-conditioning with a lantern light that opens to the sky. The auditorium was erected in 1901 in just 38 weeks. Apart from the Arts Council’s £6m grant, the Heritage Lottery Fund provided £3.85m because the building is grade II*-listed. In addition, the project received £3.2m from the Heart of Hackney single regeneration budget, £750,000 from the London Development Agency, £1.3m from businessman Sir Alan Sugar and more than £750,000 from a range of trusts and foundations. The current design has been inspired by the Empire’s strong links with the community and its irreverent music-hall style. Ronalds says: “The Empire is loved by a diverse audience of black and Turkish people. Largely female audiences turn up dressed to the nines. “Where else do you find 1000 people all buying tickets on the night rather than by advance credit card bookings?”

“For me it’s been a five-year struggle,” says Ronalds. “But it would never have been finished if it wasn’t for funding from Sir Alan Sugar and the fundraising efforts of Griff Rhys Jones who’s been our hero. It may be the last big London theatre project.”

Architects Tim Ronalds Architects
Structural Engineers Babtie
Services Engineers Max Fordham
Quantity Surveyors Boyden & Co