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An Interview with David Brownlee of Theatre 2016

This year, a brand new ticketing conference comes to London. Run by the clever people over at BON Culture, Theatre 2016 is set to be the largest ever industry-wide theatre conference in the UK, bringing 1,000 delegates from across the theatre industry together on the 12th and 13th May in central London.

It’s the first time since 2005 that the sector has come together for such a major event, and its aim is to celebrate the UK’s current position as a world leader in theatre as well as highlighting theatre’s massive contribution to the cultural, social, educational and economic health of the nation.

Director of BON Culture, David Brownlee who has 25 years experience in the arts, came up with the idea of Theatre 2016 with his colleague Mari O’Neill, after they co-founded the enterprise last year.

We had a chat with David to talk all about his background, why our industry needs a conference like this and what you can look forward to hearing about over the two days.

Could you give us a little bit of a recap of your career and background?

I graduated with a degree in Drama from Bangor and was really lucky to get a job at St Donats Arts Centre just outside Cardiff. Technically I was doing 'publicity', but actually I was also staffing the Box Office, serving at the bar and even projecting films. It was a wonderful place to work not least because at that time it was the home of Music Theatre Wales and the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which has fed my love of contemporary music.  

I spent about ten years working in marketing and fundraising for venues, festivals, tours and in the West End. I ended up in Stoke launching two huge venues (for the then tiny) ATG. I decided I wanted to broaden the scope of what I was doing and landed the role of Head of Arts and Entertainment for the London Borough of Lewisham, line managing an arts service, theatre, and big events programme.  

Five years at Arts Council England followed, initially in the East Midlands and then at 'head office' with a couple national Director roles. Then onto run Audiences UK and UK Theatre before setting up BON Culture with my Family Arts Campaign Co Director Mari O'Neill.  

What do you think have been the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?

My top three would be technology, funding and management skill.  

Things were so different when I started at St Donats in 1990. We had one computer that the whole team shared (other than the Director, who didn't know how to turn it on). The fax machine was a miraculous new invention that we borrowed and a computerised box office was something we dreamt of.  

We were paid a pittance because that was all our poorly funded organisation could afford. We were lucky to generally have decent facilities at St Donats, although films were screened on ancient 16mm projector that gave film nights a pre-war, village hall feel.  

There were good and bad managers then as there are now, but I think overall we've become far more entrepreneurial as a sector. And I don't think the art has got any worse as we have got better at the business.  

Outside theatre, I’ve seen society become far more diverse, particularly culturally diverse. I wish I could say the same for theatre and the arts more generally. This has got to be a top priority for the sector now and for the next 25 years.

What do you think have been the biggest opportunities and obstacles?

I think we forget quite how much we owe John Major. The National Lottery transformed the arts in this country. We now have a wonderful range of fantastic spaces for the arts. More revenue funding followed Lottery investment. As this funding has been cut, Lottery funds have been repurposed to fill a lot of the gaps.  

When I started out we were a data poor sector. Now we're quite the reverse. I still get frustrated that funders and individual organisations don't always use these riches to make more informed and better decisions. We don't learn from the data or each other half as much as we should.  

What was the aim behind starting this conference? And the aims of BON Culture?

I think it's the same answer for both: to share learning and foster better collaboration. As BON we have a role as a broker and catalyst to bring people together and disseminate new learning and good practice. Sometimes that will be through consultancy and small events. Sometimes it will be huge and ambitious projects like Theatre 2016.  

I'm not going to list our twelve partners or multitude of sponsors (other than to say thank you Spektrix) but it's been fantastic to help bring the whole sector together and support discussions on what we should be programming. This is not BON's conference, it is owned by the theatre industry. Which is exactly what it should be.  

Why do you think Theatre and the arts needs a conference of this kind?

It's over ten years since there's been any attempt to mount a cross-industry conference. So much has changed since then. At the same time, we're still wrestling with some of the same issues.  

For such a successful sector we are really bad at shouting about it. Theatre 2016 will give the whole industry the chance to come together and celebrate our success while also trying to come up with some practical steps to deal with those new and historic issues.  

There's also a huge amount to be said for just getting together. I'm sure Theatre 2016 will be the catalyst for a huge number of collaborations and new initiatives that have nothing to do with the debate, as brilliant as I am sure it will be!  

What will people get out of the conference and who do you think will benefit the most?

We hope we've come up with a structure for the conference that really will appeal to everyone who cares about theatre. There’s a diverse range of discussions and debates with interesting voices from all around the UK and beyond. As well as great networking and some challenging presentations, delegates will all have the chance to have their voice heard and contribute to the priorities for action that are agreed by the conference.

I hope that Theatre 2016 will deliver long-term benefits for theatre organisations, professional and audiences.

Could you give us an insight into the key themes and issues that will be discussed?  

The basic premise of the conference is that theatre is thriving in 2016 (despite some enormous challenges). How do we ensure the sector adapts and evolves so we can have such a great story to tell in 2026?

For the two mornings all delegates will come together for keynote and panel sessions that celebrate the success of theatre and provide some informed and challenging opinions on what needs to change.

Lunch will be taken early to allow for the maximum possible time in the afternoon of both days for a total of six strands of discussion and debate on key questions for the sector (with each delegate choosing two strands). For each strand the session would involve some background presentations and panel discussions before going on to debate and vote on two motions.

The partners have come up with the following strand titles:

  • Strand 1: “How will the art and practice of theatre need to adapt to thrive in the next ten years?”
  • Strand 2: "What must be done to achieve a workforce that is as diverse as the population and how can sustainable careers be assured?"
  • Strand 3: “How can theatre play a more prominent role in key issues of national and international debate?”
  • Strand 4: “Who will pay for the value that theatre brings to society?”
  • Strand 5: “Will theatre inevitably become a minority interest for an increasingly diverse population?”
  • Strand 6: “How can we afford relevant and accessible places and spaces for theatre in our changing communities?”

I think they’ve done a great job in highlighting the biggest issues for the next ten years.  I’m not sure which two I’d choose!

As one of the sponsors for Theatre 2016, the Spektrix team are excited to be able to offer our clients a discount on tickets bought before the 13th February. If you’d like to book a place for the cheaper price of £195+vat (from £345+vat), please contact hello@spektrix.com to receive the discount code. We’ll see you there!