Theatre at the centre of a community

Four years ago, the 2008 Conference, under the banner Building Sustainable Theatres, focused on environmental sustainability. As the Theatre Trust's director, Mhora Samuel, suggests, we now need to approach things more holistically: addressing economic and social impact as well as environmental issues—looking at "the triple bottom line".

Much of the discussion was still about energy saving but linked with economic advantages and there was much emphasis on the role that theatres can play not only in the enrichment of the quality of life but in the economic invigoration of communities and their role as catalysts of community activity and focuses of civic pride.

Nigel Hinds, Creative Producer of the Cultural Olympiad, kicked things off emphasising that what we do now determines what our children inherit. He saw theatres as able to play a disproportionate, much larger role in their effect and influence and emphasised that even in terms of ecological sustainability it is not just a matter of energy use—he knew of one producer recently who had made the decision not to use a large amount of water but to achieve his impact by other means. It needed emphasising that quite small changes made at a great many venues add up to considerable difference.

Griff Rhys Jones in his keynote speech was only the first of many to place the theatre at the centre of community at a time when we meet much less as a community than people did in the past. With town centres losing residents and shops and offices providing no activity at night, how is that going to affect a theatre and on the other hand how can a theatre provide a lively heart, a centre of civic pride with which people will identify? How do we sustain not just a building but what we do? Civic pride is partly in its culture but can we provide an environment as safe as a huge modern shopping centre? When we look to improve our premises what changes do we need? Larger people need more legroom but the hugger mugger community of closeness is part of what bonds folk together. Another speaker saw people in penny pinching times seeing a visit to a shopping mall and a cup of coffee becoming an evening entertainment much cheaper than a theatre ticket. That too is something to take on board:

"The need for provoking, stimulating and allowing communities to see their theatres not as spaces of entertainment but of spaces of need. A need driven from the heart and blood of communities that propels them, draws them, even sucks them into needing the existence of theatres."

He pointed out that in the shopping centres as well as cinemas, there may be a GP surgery in the supermarket and suggests that when library services, medical services, employment services and postal services are being cut, our communities have to look towards theatres not just to represent this on the stage, but to offer alternative spaces for these services. We have to make the theatre what the greengrocer and the baker was to the high street, serving the community with a need and demand.