“Take the fucking money! Why don’t you take the fucking money?” The Chairman of the Liverpool Everyman Theatre had me with my back to the wall in the little kitchenette attached to the theatre’s most prestigious rehearsal room, The Red Room. He was clearly irked and my unwillingness to accept some kind of pay off from him, as his role as Chairman of the Theatre, to me, in my role as Director of the Hope Street Project, was irking him even further.
I continued to decline his pay off as politely as I could but can’t remember who left the kitchenette first or what happened immediately afterwards although I knew I had to get back to our rehearsals of Carmina Burana; a multimedia production we had devised with musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and video support from MITES (which was later to become FACT) and which was due to be performed in the Theatre in just a few days time.
The payment in question was a large sum of cash which the theatre had received from its backers – most notably the European Union in the form of European Social Funds – which were to be used for various training programmes which the Everyman had established through its training wing, the Hope Street Project. Or more accurately – which the Hope St Project had established and which the Everyman Theatre occasionally looked at with various degrees of affection, bewilderment or hostility, depending on where you sat within the organisational heirarchy.
The payment being offered to me was an enticement which amounted to: “Take the fucking money, stick it in your organisation, and then take your fucking organisation off our backs so that we can run the theatre like we did in the good old days.”
The Chairman was clearly rattled and he had good cause to be. The Everyman had been suffering financially for many years, not least because of falling public sector involvement, falling audiences and artistic policies which weren’t cutting the mustard any longer. Then, in 1988, the City Council and the Theatre’s Administrator came up with a scheme to end all schemes. They identified a vast pot of national regeneration money, coupled it to an equally large pot of European money and turned it into a training programme which the Everyman – or indeed any other regional theatres – had never seen in living memory.
The programme – the Hope Street Project – was soon causing ructions both in and out of the theatre and posing lots of difficult questions to its staff, audiences, Board members, politicians and funders. What was to be done with this funding? How could the Everyman manage what amounted to a 100% increase in turnover literally overnight? And most crucially – what did it now mean to be a regional producing theatre?
The last question was particularly potent and exercised many of us over many hours tortuous debate not only in the Red Room but in every nook and cranny of the building and its hidey hole of last resort – The Bistro. To some, the concept of The Everyman was that it was a fantastic little bar (The Bistro) which had a theatre attached to it; rather than a fantastic little theatre which had a bar attached to it but that’s another story.
The questioning went on for years and left everyone exhausted by the time the theatre was close to finally falling on its knees due to yet another round of funding cuts and falling audiences. The Chairman’s view was that the fault of this malaise was completely down to the Hope Street Project causing everyone to take their eye of the collective artistic ball which led, in his words, to a theatre ‘for social engineering’ – something he was adamant in the press that he didn’t want.
So his proposal was simple: ‘take the fucking money and get off our backs and let us get on with saving and running this theatre’.
Unfortunately for him, the proposal didn’t stack up and it wasn’t long after that the Theatre went into receivership, the Hope Street staff and trainees were all made redundant and a knight in white armour (in the form of the union, MSF) came galloping over the hill to save the Hope St. Project and rescue its EU funding from the jaws of an untimely and unpleasant liquidation.
Whether the bureaucrats had any idea of how EU funding was transforming (wrecking or saving – take your pick) regional British Theatre in the late 1980s is anyone’s guess. But I do know that without it, Hope St would never had started; the ground work for LIPA would never have started and the cultural vibrancy of one of the UK’s great cities would have taken a severe beating. One thing we can be certain of: without EU funding, the City’s European City of Culture would have stalled down in the Bistro years before, along with countless other plans for cultural urban regeneration in the city.
‘It’s not me, Peter,” I should have said to the Chairman when I left the Red Room to go back to the rehearsal. “It’s you.”