The introduction of 25% tax relief for professional touring theatre is obviosuly a welcome and promising move. I am one of the artistic directors of Ockham's Razor, a small touring circus theatre company, the money saved makes a profound difference for companies like us in an environment where budgets are increasingly, painfully tight.
According to the guidelines, along with theatre, other eligible artforms include ballet, contemporary ballet and other dance performances that are “dramatic productions”. Circus is eligible only if it is “scripted”, “dramatic” and the performers “play a role” rather than simply being “a display of athleticism, skill or strength”.
These guidleines put us in a strange position. We are one of the leading touring circus theatre companies in England but we make non verbal, devised theatre; our shows are not “scripted”. While there is a narrative arc and the perfromers do indeed “play a role” the work is largely choreographic and the performers also function as an ensemble. It is at times “dramatic” and at other times abstract and sculptural.
When we initially wrote to HMRC we explained this along with a wealth of supporting information showing that we are firmly placed and recognised in the theatre world. We receive regular funding from Arts Council England as one of their NPO companies for theatre. We have documented 10 years of critical writing about us in the theatre sections of broadsheets, magazines and listings. We have been the focus of study in PHDs and books about the development of physical theatre in England.
However, when HMRC wrote back to us they stated that as a circus company they could only grant us the tax relief if we could prove that the show was “scripted” and “dramatic” and that the performers had defined roles with character names. In other words we had to retrospectively write the script of the show, assign character names to the 5 performers in the ensemble and break down the action scene by scene explaining what made it dramatic.
As an exercise it was an absurd, almost philosophical undertaking. In making visual, physical theatre, the whole point is to create emotional shifts in the audience that are hard to articulate and come from an accumulation of the play between the relationships, the choreography, the light, the equipment. We did, of course, write a script as best we could - we were helped by the fact that there are human relationships within the show that develop and are easier to “prove” as dramatic. But I can think of many other leading contemporary circus companies, making profound contributions to English touring, who might struggle under this incredibly narrow definition.
What makes HMRC's rule for circus all the stranger is the fact that ballet and contemporary don't require this. Presumably, something about the choreographic nature of dance means that despite being free of a script it doesn't become simply “a display of athleticism, skill or strength”. In reality contemporary circus is a scene that draws as deeply from the purely choreographic world of dance, if not more, than the world of theatre.
Clearly the wording is in place to keep out traditional circus. Why that should be is an interesting question in itself. Also a troubling one where a great deal of wonderful family friendly shows and groundbreaking art comes from the traditional scene. If HMRC want to help support the incredibly rich and exciting breadth of touring theatre in this country then they need to address this. They need to review their presumptions about circus and they need a wider and more sophisticated definition of both circus and theatre.