7:84 faces its final curtain as grant is cut

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THE FUTURE of one of Scotland’s longest-established theatre companies was under serious threat last night as the Scottish Arts Council said it would no longer guarantee the group’s £200,000 annual grant.

7:84, founded in 1971 by the socialist playwright John McGrath in a bid to bring theatre to a wider audience, is one of eight arts organisations told their annual funding will cease from March 2005.

The Scottish Arts Council (SAC) described the move last night as a shift to supporting theatre for children and young people. Four children’s drama companies have been awarded the "core-funded" status now denied to 7:84, to the tune of nearly 400,000 a year between them.

Lorenzo Mele, 7:84’s director, called it a "massive blow". The SAC’s 225,000 grant has provided close to half of the company’s 467,000 annual budget, and its income from other sources, including local councils, depends on the reliable income from the SAC.

Mr Mele said: "There is a serious chance that the company will fold because you are talking about half of our income just disappearing."

The Arts Council decision is another that reflects the growing debate about both value for money and audiences.

With the Scottish Executive promising a major review of arts and culture policy this winter and lottery revenues shrinking, the operations of companies, from giants like Scottish Opera to far smaller groups are under a critical eye.

The policies of widening audiences through "social inclusion" and an educational agenda for younger audiences and schools, is playing an increasing role in the arts agenda.

Ironically, 7:84 was founded with an explicitly socialist and idealistic goal of taking political theatre to the people. McGrath, who left the company in 1988 and died last year, won acclaim for productions such as The Cheviot, The Stag, and The Black, Black Oil, the play which told the story of Scotland’s exploitation from the Highland clearances to the oil boom.

The council list of organisations that will lose their core funding includes two other theatre companies, Suspect Culture and Borderline. The others are the Crawford Arts Centre, New Media Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust and the Scottish Community Drama Association.

The Arts Council is pledging to soften the blow by working with the companies concerned to either get access to grants for particular projects, or by inviting them to reapply for the more reliable core funding.

"Beyond March 2005 they don’t have a guarantee funding from us. They will have to work on a project by project basis," said a spokeswoman.

"The council feels its priority is to encourage young people and children to experience theatre from an early age. It should be remembered that we are a flexible investment organisation and are trying to match the needs of our audiences. We have a finite budget and can’t expand it to include everybody."

The council had to consider its priorities given the current review by the Scottish Executive, she said: "If you like we’ve given these companies advance notice that their priorities and our priorities must match."

The beneficiaries of yesterday’s decision, after a meeting of the council, were clear.

Two companies, Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions, have been awarded 91,000 per year, beginning in 2004. A third, Giant Productions, will be awarded 130,000 from 2005.

A fourth company, Lung Ha’s, has also been awarded core-funded status, to continue its excellent work with learning disabled adults, involving them in all aspects of leading and directing productions. Its award of 75,000 per year will also begin in 2005.

It was 7:84 which took the news hardest yesterday. The company has just appointed Mr Mele as its new artistic director, and was hoping to make a fresh start.

His appointment follows a year of rumoured divisions in the company, during which two board members resigned.

The 14 months it took between the resignation of his predecessor and the appointment of Mr Mele had added to the impression that the company was adrift. Reviews of recent productions have been mixed.

Mr Mele insisted that the company had beaten its income, venue, and touring targets set by the SAC. It sold 9,000 seats, 2,000 more than the 7,000 targeted, and also took its touring shows to more venues.

While funding appears to amount to an SAC subsidy of about 20 a seat, it compares favourably to other companies, he said, while outreach programmes reach another 3,000-4,000 people annually.

Along with six full-time staff, the theatre is a leading employer of writers and actors, he said. It is Scotland’s only touring political theatre, and as an example of trying to reach marginalised audiences, is starting one project with a young offender’s institute in Ayrshire.