Matthew Warchus on A Christmas Carol
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was born out of rage, determination and fiery compassion. Appalled by a recent visit to a Ragged School, and struck by how little intervention there was by people with privilege to combat the suffering of those in need, his first impulse was to exhort the public to charitable efforts through writing a freely distributed pamphlet. But then he changed his mind, believing that fiction could achieve more. The massive and immediate success of his novella A Christmas Carol is an iconic example of the humanitarian and political power of culture. Fiction doesn’t have to be just a diversion or a pastime. It really can change individuals and societies for the better. Intelligent entertainment is a transformative necessity, not a luxury.
Last year, inspired by Dickens’ social conscience, The Old Vic production of A Christmas Carol raised money through bucket collections for Field Lane, a charity which began life in 1841 as the most famous Ragged School, teaching over 500 young people each day in one enormous classroom. Today it provides care, accommodation and support for vulnerable families and adults with learning difficulties. Through the run of the show an amazing total of £115,000 was donated by our audiences. This year we hope that our audiences might match that extraordinary act of generosity, this time for The Felix Project, a charity which collects surplus food from suppliers and delivers it free of charge to charities and schools that provide food to people in need — a wonderfully simple model helping to address the twin scandal of food waste and food poverty. The Felix Project delivers enough food to make over three million meals a year.
But you might not be aware that The Old Vic is itself a charity. A charity which exists ‘To promote art, culture and heritage for the benefit of the general public, particularly but not exclusively through public performances of dramatic, literary, musical and other artistic works.’ This charitable status asserts, by implication, that the performing arts can also have a crucial humanitarian purpose alongside those providing food, shelter and support. We take this task seriously at The Old Vic. We know that the entertainment we present on the stage has the capacity not only to delight and transport but also to expand the understanding of relationships, families and societies, to deepen the appreciation of history — great injustices and unfeasible triumphs — and to elevate the sense of shared responsibility for the world around us today, and for our future, both as individuals and as a species. When it’s unravelled like this I’m aware that it sounds worryingly like medicine, whereas a great performance is, thankfully, more like a celebration and a feast… but it’s potential to improve us is, I believe, indisputable.
And there’s more. The productions onstage are inevitably the most obvious part of what a theatre does but the charitable drive and social mission of The Old Vic can be found in several other aspects of our work, most of which are far less explicitly on display but every bit as much a part of our identity and purpose.
When you buy a ticket, it’s worth knowing that you are helping to support a range of activities that not only bring young people into contact with theatre for the first time, but in many cases serving as a springboard to employment or further education.
Our Schools Club starts at the grassroots, providing free tickets and workshops for up to 1,500 children every year, partnering with 40 secondary schools across 25 London Boroughs, and providing teachers with opportunities for continued professional development and supporting arts education in schools. Around A Christmas Carol, we will be supporting equality of access to the arts through Curtain Up, working with children aged 8+ who would not otherwise have access to a live show. 12 primary schools and community groups will have access to free tickets to a performance and a pre-show workshop, and we are actively seeking to engage with schools with a focus on Special Educational Needs and Disability provision. For those seeking opportunities in further education or in the workplace, we run an employability project, Take The Lead, that draws on theatre techniques to build on core technical and soft skills for young people aged 16 to 18, and supports social mobility.
We also run Front Line, which gives 16 to 25 year olds the opportunity to discover more about careers in theatre and develop key transferable skills through paid placements with our Front of House team. Participants watch a production, shadow various members of staff, gain practical experience and advice on skills and CV development. For some participants, they are able to take this one stage further with our Front Line Facilitators course, a free creative practitioner programme offering advanced hands-on experience in leadership skills and communication that can be used to gain employment elsewhere.
The Old Vic 12, a yearly programme, sees 12 emerging theatre practitioners from different disciplines of theatre-making join us on attachment for a year, receiving mentoring and the opportunity to be involved in the daily life of the building, and receiving a grant to create and develop three brand new plays to be presented at the theatre.
On a day to day basis, our staff well-being initiatives include our system of Guardians which provides a collaborative and effective way of supporting workplace culture.
In addition, it’s a joy that many of our staff provide mentoring, guidance and advice on a voluntary basis for a number of charities, both those with whom we have formal partnerships like Hestia and PIPA as well as those they are personally involved in. Their commitment and drive has led us to introduce a ‘Day off a Year to Volunteer’ initiative from 2019, where each staff member can take time out of work to commit to something they are passionate about. Through working for a charity, they are perhaps more acutely aware of the need to offer our help in whatever way we can.
At The Old Vic, like all charities, we are completely dependent on outside support. Theatre, in general, is a financially very precarious endeavour and is more frequently loss-making than profit-making (which is of course why public subsidy exists). For example, A Christmas Carol — one of the most popular shows of the year — playing to a capacity audience for eight weeks, can only generate approximately the same amount of profit as the money raised in the bucket collections for Field Lane last year. Meanwhile, several of our other exciting productions each year would never be expected to cover their costs at all. In fact, because we want to keep ticket prices at an affordable level, The Old Vic is only ever able to generate about two thirds of its revenue through ticket sales. And because we (surprisingly) receive no regular government subsidy, we need to raise the remaining £3.9m per year from private and corporate donors — companies and individuals who share our beliefs in the effectiveness of theatre as an illuminative and enriching social force. Without their support your ticket today could have cost up to £164.
If you have already been to see A Christmas Carol, I hope you enjoy your visit to The Old Vic*, sharing in this great enlightenment story. In illustrating how Ignorance, Greed and Hatred (the ‘Three Poisons’ according to Buddhism) can be transformed (with the right effort) into Wisdom, Generosity and Kindness it certainly has a timeless purpose. Please come back and join us for some of the exciting upcoming shows in 2019 or get involved in one of our many other projects in the building and beyond. Thank you for your support.
* We know the ladies’ loos provision is a disaster. We apologise in advance. However, the good news is that we are just £100,000 short of raising the necessary £3m to refurbish the front of house to provide full wheel chair access and double the number of ladies’ toilets. The work will be complete in the summer of 2019 — thank you for bearing with us whilst we undergo these vital works — and this grand old building will be properly welcoming to all for the first time in its 200 year old history. If you want to help us get to our target, go to oldvictheatre.com/ovtomorrow. We’d be incredibly grateful (as would half of our audience).