Last year Oxford company Ballet in Small Spaces rehearsed, produced and opened its new show at the Castle, Wellingborough; a centrally situated municipal arts centre with a fully equipped flexible theatre capable of holding up to 500 people in conventional format or of showing work in the round, supported by a studio theatre rehearsal space, small dance studio and a full time professional technical and administrative team.  This April I was part of the company performing Dancing the Invisible at the Ivy Arts Centre, University of Surrey in Guildford, a similar flexible theatre space only recently converted from an old sports centre; here alongside the theatre a large dance studio where we rehearsed daily, other rehearsal rooms and production facilities, and a technical crew in which students from Guildford School of Acting could learn by working alongside seasoned professionals.

I revelled in these working conditions which on both occasions enabled focused professional work to be intensively developed, honed and presented at a high standard.  It is not currently possible to work like this in Oxford because Oxford lacks performing arts facilities like these.  Despite huge amounts of arts activities – dozens of accomplished local choirs and musical ensembles both amateur and professional, hundreds of adult dance classes, talented pre-vocational students in youth dance and theatre, long established and respected amateur theatrical groups – Oxford seems to have nothing between tiny venues and large venues.  Such schools and colleges as have purpose built performance spaces or larger halls also have full schedules of their own events, and can only offer few occasions and sporadic access at anti-social hours to local companies to mount and present work.  Even when work gets to be showcased at dynamic small venues such as Pegasus or Old Fire Station, maximum potential box office is just too small to cover the costs of performance let alone production.  Companies must go with the begging bowl to Arts Council funding if costs such as technical and design expenses and space rental are to be covered.  Artists here must continually confront the “low pay or no pay” dilemma if they wish to continue exercising their creative muscles and maintaining professional standards.

In hard times spending on performing arts must seem the lowest of priorities – and yet to look at return on government investment, the arts are one of very few areas which actually make money for the country; through VAT charged on theatre tickets, through international prominence and earnings for British artists in theatre, movie, TV and music production, through knock on benefits to tourism and travel.  This is without attempting to quantify the unquantifiable benefits to society in terms of wellbeing, culture and education.  It is not art that has nearly bankrupted our economy, arguably investing more in it might bring about some of the elusive growth politicians are so desperately chasing.

Most artists I know are remarkably good at making a little money go a very long way and at magically constructing proverbial silk purses out of unpromising scraps. But there comes a point when a ceiling is reached, and the creative idea with potential is terminally stunted by lack of resource; where work is artistically impoverished because its circumstances are impoverished.  Professional performers leave Oxford unable to return for lack of realistic employment and production opportunities; the audiences for the new, the local and the off-beat that might grow to support them diminish through lack of opportunity to experience their work.

I have written to the Oxford Times where debate continually rages in the letters pages about the infrastructure and development of the city’s limited space.  Charities in the developing world seek to give aid not in food hand-outs but by supporting initiatives that enable people to become more self sufficient.  Similarly I am not pleading here for bigger short-term arts grants, but instead for provision of facilities to help the arts be self-supporting and build their own audience. Oxford’s history and dynamic varied population deserve imaginative ambition on the part of planners, developers and local councillors, rather than more identikit retail premises full of consumables we can no longer afford.  Both universities must play their part in recognising and supporting the performing arts disciplines and their practitioners’ need for dedicated rehearsal and performance facilities to develop work worthy of a discerning and lively public.  Let us make use of that ingenious creativity that artistic activity stimulates to dream together and discuss what is needed and how this might be achieved… please write to the Oxford Times in response to my published letter, or contribute your thoughts by commenting here on Oxford Dance Writers.

Susie Crow