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Look to thy purse: a way to save Britain's subsidized theaters?

`WE'RE ahead of the world in the thing that we've always been best at, which is theater,'' said Sir Kenneth Cork, former chairman of Britain's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. ``And we've got to keep it that way. But unless major steps are taken, it will not continue.'' Sir Kenneth, who is also a specialist in accounting and the theater business, was speaking at a recent press gathering at which he announced a series of the most innovative proposals for revamping British theater in a quarter of a century.

The proposals are the brainchild of an independent committee of British theater professionals. The committee includes actress Diana Rigg and national newspaper theater critic Michael Billington and is headed by Sir Kenneth himself. Organized at the request of the British government and the Arts Council (a public funding body set up for the performing arts by the government in 1946), the committee was created in response to a tide of criticism and concern about the structure and financial development of British theater today.

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Under Sir Kenneth's direction, committee members spent the past nine months trying to determine what was causing the malaise within British theater. They carefully weighed the views of actors, directors, producers, and theater administrators, then came up with ideas for putting the theater to right.

Britain has a well-established theatrical tradition of state patronage. This has made it possible over the years for the country to create and sustain many vibrant regional theaters and touring drama groups. (The nation's regional theater system currently has some 55 residential and 30 touring companies.) Along with its two world-renowned national companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre (NT), these groups until now have been the lifeblood of the British stage.

Public funding for British theater reached its peak in the mid-1970s under former Prime Minister James Callaghan's Labour government. Since 1979, however, with the introduction of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's monetarist policies, the picture has changed dramatically.

The RSC and NT, which together receive the largest proportion of Arts Council money allocated for theater, have in particular been under increasing pressure to subsist on their commercial earnings. But these companies are already only able to offer salaries well below that which their top artists could receive in the commercial market. So RSC and NT must rely heavily on their prestige as a kind of payment. This trend adds further strain to their position, and the situation is made even more critical by the fact that both companies remain passionately committed to holding down the price of tickets. (A top seat currently averages around $22.)

But it's not only the big boys who have suffered in recent years. Regional companies, small-scale experimental works, and theatrical touring have also been greatly squeezed. In some instances, in fact, state funding has been reduced by almost 50 percent.

The result of these trends, in real terms, is far more poignant than mere pounds and percents might suggest. Indeed, the response among performers here has often been a growing feeling of gloom and doom.

As Diana Rigg said in a recent Monitor interview, ``In the end it boils down to the fact that, as an actor myself, I do highly paid work [films and TV] in order to subsidize myself in the subsidized theater here.

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``But if one were paid properly -- and when I say properly, I mean so you're not out of pocket for working in Manchester, Newcastle, and so on -- it would make things far more satisfying. . . . Also, given the current situation, the touring system is greatly constricted. . . . And I miss very much the opportunity of playing in places like Manchester or Edinburgh . . . and I think it would benefit from it.''

The Cork Report makes a staggering 95 recommendations, requiring an injection of some 14 million ($22 million) annually into British theater. The key ones are:

Creating an entrepreneurial Theater Development Fund to help promote and expand theater generally.

Establishing six more national companies, located in regions across the country, with regular cross-fertilization between the regional and the two already-existing national companies.

Designating certain theaters in London and the regions as ``national new-writing theaters'' and giving them additional funds according to how successful they are in fostering new work.

Requiring that the publicly funded national television company, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), contribute 1 percent of its annual revenue, along with the independent commercial TV companies contributing an equivalent sum. This would be in recompense for the skills and talent that are developed in the theater sector that aid immeasurably in maintaining the high standard of British television drama today.

Making certain that when the national theater companies mount productions that later tranfer to the West End or Broadway, those companies will receive at least 50 percent of the total profits. (This, Sir Kenneth emphasized, was decided upon well before the controvery erupted over alleged profiteering by the NT's artistic director, Sir Peter Hall, and his counterpart at the RSC, Sir Trevor Nunn.)

Whether these proposals are to be implemented rests with the government, the Arts Council and the public at large. Responding to the report, the government's arts minister, Richard Luce, said that, ``there's no doubting the importance of it, and I will be studying it very carefully.'' The reaction from Arts Council Chairman Sir William Rees-Mogg was that ``it's a formidably thorough document which will certainly be a milestone in the history of public funding for theater in Britain.''

The BBC so far has remained tight-lipped about the report, while a spokesman for the commercial Independent Broadcasting Authority said, ``We certainly are not rejecting the idea [of a levy] in any way.'' But the spokesman hastened to add that the authority already made indirect contributions to the theater through its various training schemes.

And does Sir Kenneth expect his ``milestone'' report to be implemented?

``I think a lot of it will be adopted,'' he states firmly. ``I think that if you produce a logical report, by reasonably responsible people, and you've got a reasonably good lobby -- which I think the arts has -- I don't think any government can afford to just file it.''

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