The Decline of Performing Arts Touring: A Missed Opportunity for Cultural Accessibility

The Impact of Disintegrating Arts Council Touring Department

In recent years, there has been a growing concern about the decline of performing arts touring in the United Kingdom. While much attention has been given to the state of touring opera, the issue extends to other forms of performing arts as well. This decline can be attributed, in part, to the disintegration of the Arts Council Touring department, which was once responsible for coordinating and supporting a vibrant program of drama, dance, and opera across the country. Former deputy director of Arts Council Touring, Jodi Myers, laments the loss of a consistent national overview, resulting in limited access to high-quality productions and a lack of incentive for artists to tour. This article will explore the consequences of this decline and the need for a revitalized approach to performing arts touring.

The Role of Arts Council Touring in Expanding Access to the Arts

During the 1970s, the Arts Council Touring department played a vital role in bringing performing arts to audiences across the country. It supported and coordinated a diverse range of productions, including drama, dance, and opera, ensuring that national companies, as well as established and emerging ensembles, had the opportunity to tour venues of all sizes. This initiative led to the formation of English National Opera North, the relocation of Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to Birmingham, and the establishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s season in Newcastle. It also facilitated the staging of classic and contemporary plays, innovative theater, and dance performances. By providing artists with reasonable fees and working with local authorities to save theaters from closure, Arts Council Touring played a crucial role in expanding access to the arts.

The Disintegration of Arts Council Touring

Unfortunately, around the turn of the century, the Arts Council Touring department was dismantled, leading to a fragmented approach to performing arts touring. While there have been sporadic initiatives by the Arts Council to fund touring productions, there has been no consistent national oversight. This lack of coordination has resulted in a paucity of varied productions available for venues of all scales to book, leaving audiences in many parts of the country with limited access to high-quality work. The economic disincentive for artists to tour further exacerbates this issue.

The Perception of Opera and Accessibility

Edward Lambert argues that opera is not as inaccessible as it is often perceived to be. He highlights the availability of modern operas, such as “Written on Skin” and “Exterminating Angel,” and emphasizes that opera tickets are not necessarily more expensive than West End musicals or Premiership matches. However, there is still a perception that opera favors metropolitan theaters, further alienating audiences in other regions. Lambert suggests that companies like English Touring Opera, which actively tour smaller venues, should be encouraged to bridge this accessibility gap.

The Power of Contemporary Works

Nicholas Reckert echoes Lambert’s sentiment and emphasizes the importance of contemporary works in reinvigorating the genre. He cites examples of recent operas, including “Shoulder to Shoulder” by Swansea City Opera, which draws inspiration from the experiences of Men’s Sheds Cymru. Reckert praises the ability of contemporary operas to engage and uplift audiences, underscoring the need for more diverse and accessible productions.

The Call for a Revitalized Approach

Jane Harvey highlights the need for a revitalized approach to performing arts touring, emphasizing the power of music and libretto to speak directly to audiences. She cites the success of “Shoulder to Shoulder” as an example of how contemporary works can resonate with diverse communities. Harvey’s sentiment aligns with the call for a consistent national overview and increased support for touring productions, ensuring that a wide range of audiences have access to high-quality performances.


The decline of performing arts touring, particularly in the realm of opera, is a missed opportunity for cultural accessibility in the United Kingdom. The disintegration of the Arts Council Touring department has resulted in limited access to diverse productions and a lack of incentive for artists to tour. While there are efforts to counter these challenges, such as English Touring Opera and contemporary works like “Shoulder to Shoulder,” a more comprehensive and coordinated approach is needed. By revitalizing performing arts touring and supporting a diverse range of productions, the United Kingdom can ensure that audiences across the country have the opportunity to experience the transformative power of the arts.






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