The Drill Hall's future in doubt

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After three decades at the forefront of lesbian and gay theatre, the Drill Hall is facing a crippling cut in funding

  • The Drill Hall's future in doubt

    Lights out? The Drill Hall faces a funding cut and an uncertain future

  • For 30 years, the Drill Hall in Chenies Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, has been home to lesbian and gay performers, writers, painters, musicians and audiences. It’s commissioned new plays for its two theatres, it’s fostered emergent artists and worked with young people to address homophobia in schools. The Drill Hall is the UK’s only building-based lesbian and gay arts organisation. And last month, the Arts Council announced its proposal to withdraw public funding from the venue.

    The Arts Council’s £250,000 funding accounts for 20 per cent of the Drill Hall’s annual turnover. The venue might survive without it, and is actively exploring alternative funding arrangements, but the scope and nature of its work would have to change dramatically. New commissions would be fewer, the education programme would be under threat, and the focus would be on making a profit rather than fostering work for the future. ‘We offer fantastic support to queer artists to develop new work’ says the Drill Hall’s artistic director, Julie Parker. ‘We don’t just occasionally do queer stuff, like a lot of venues; it’s absolutely central to our artistic vision. For 30 years, we’ve given lesbian and gay audiences a place to call their own, where they can see work from all over the world. We are unique, and I think it’s short-sighted of the Arts Council not to recognise that.’

    So why would the Arts Council propose withdrawing the Drill Hall’s funding? ‘We have serious concerns about the financial viability of the organisation as it stands,’ says Moira Sinclair, interim executive director of the Arts Council’s London office. ‘We don’t think it has a sustainable business plan in place, or a robust strategy for fundraising and growth in the future.’

    The Drill Hall is not alone. Across the UK, 194 other arts organisations face withdrawal of funding from April 2008; 53 of them are in London. The Guardian described the proposals as ‘the biggest and most bloody cull’ in the Arts Council’s 50-year history. But the picture is particularly grim for lesbian and gay arts. Manchester’s annual Queer Up North festival is also on the list, despite an impressive international artist roster and significantly improved audience figures in 2007. It looks, to those of us with a suspicious turn of mind, like a focused attack on queer arts in the UK.

    So what’s the agenda? Is the Arts Council forcing queer work to compete in the mainstream, where it will face a very bleak future? ‘Of course there’s no anti-LGBT agenda,’ says Sinclair. ‘Our proposals are made entirely on financial grounds. We support LGBT work across London at the Soho Theatre, Oval House, the Royal Court and Duckie. We support young and emerging artists through grants. This is not about the nature of the work, it’s about the financial viability of the organisation.’

    But without public support, it’s difficult for lesbian and gay work to get a foothold, even in 2008. Mainstream venues will put on a gay-themed play once in a while, just as TV channels occasionally do a gay season and then consider that box ticked for the foreseeable future. Without the Drill Hall and Queer Up North, it will be harder for artists to develop new work, because so few venues produce it. ‘The Arts Council questions our financial sustainability, but we’ve managed for 30 years. We fundraise from all sorts of quarters,’ says Parker. ‘But because of the nature of the work we do, we’re more dependent on public funding than some others. Even in 2008, it’s hard to imagine major corporations or high-street brands lining up to support queer work.’

    With fewer venues, there will be less work, a loss of networks, audiences and creative momentum. Among those who have been fostered by the Drill Hall are Neil Bartlett, Bloolips, Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Gay Sweatshop, Nigel Charnock and Rhona Cameron. For all of them, the Drill Hall was an important stepping stone – and it hopes to continue as such. But without Arts Council funding the programme of rehearsed readings, workshop performances and education work will surely go.

    The Drill Hall, and other venues and companies facing loss of funding, have a short window in which to lodge appeals against the decision before the regional council meets on January 24. We will then learn if, after 30 years of championing lesbian and gay work when precious few others were willing to give it a second look, the Drill Hall has a viable future.

    To see how you can help save the Drill Hall, go to www.drillhall.co.uk.



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