Thinking like developers

Nick Starr, former Executive Director at the National Theatre who, with Nick Hytner, has now formed the London Theatre Company, chaired the last session. He asked whether it is possible to create new public spaces without public subsidy. It needs synergy between developer and cultural company.

In 2010, Lee Craven, Project Director of Bradford Live, had already restored a suburban cinema in his hometown of Bradford, returning it from a bingo hall to its original 1914 condition. He then found himself taking an interest in the former Odeon cinema in the centre of the city, the last of the great super cinema/theatres in the country, a cinema where his parents did their courting and on a major site that faces a new parkland development.

Built in 1929 as the New Victoria, it cost £200,000 to build and seated 3,500. Now divided into separate spaces, he plans to strip it back to its original shape and make it a live music venue with an even bigger capacity. There is also a concert space that he sees developing into a restaurant or otherwise providing a further income stream. Having begun the work at his own expense, he has established a charitable company to carry the project forward.

It is a project that is a fine example of someone with an idea, determination and entrepreneurship.

Back in London, Riverside Studios closed its doors recently. Executive Director Guy Hornsby described the three-year redevelopment now underway. The old building was continually in need of repair and for the past five years Riverside had been looking for a partner in regeneration. It could offer a developer both profit and part of their heritage with a history of cinema, television and theatrical usage but had been approached by eight or nine developers just interested in making money before finding partners Mount Anvil and A2 Dominion.

While the developers will profit from the rest of the project, Riverside also wants its part of the building to provide a commercial revenue and it sees this coming from the development of the digital recording and other services and media use of the three studios being created, areas in which they are already experienced, from tenant companies, rehearsal room rental and from a café, a restaurant and a function space as well as from theatre and cinema admissions. In addition, the developer will provide an additional £7 million to fit out and equip the replacement venue.

Another very different form of collaboration with property developers has enabled the operation of Theatre Delicatessen. As one of its founders, Artistic Director Roland Smith, explained, this is a company that operates in buildings awaiting development. There are numerous reasons why a developer may have to wait before beginning renovation or rebuilding leaving a building temporarily empty but it still has considerable costs involved.

Having it occupied helps solves the security problem, reduces the risk of damage or decay but can also make a big difference to the level of business rates, payable even when empty. Charities get an 80% discount and if they lease to a charity so do they.

Theatre Delicatessen is a charity. They have negotiated deals which give them a lease and in which the developers pass on some of their savings. This has enabled them to create performance spaces, workshops for designers and makers and offer administrative offices to other companies, all available at low rates, and to presently employ six full- and four part-time staff to run things.

The company has been running for eight years and in that time has occupied six different properties from periods of from eight months to two and a half years. Most of its activity has been skewed towards central London, both because that is where audiences will go and because of the availability of properties, but it also moved into an old Woolworth’s in Sheffield. Of course, everyone has to be ready to move out when the lease is up and the whole concept could be affected by changes under a coming business rates review.

Smith thinks that many people who don’t easily cross the threshold into a conventional theatre will come into a space opened up on the high street and warm to the festival feeling the community generates. With a group of people working together, they also feel stronger. “Pop-up” spaces can have their problems and can be dangerous. The company works closely with London Fire Brigade and licensing authorities—doorways for instance may not be wide enough—and now issues an “Are You Safe” manual to its clients.

Theatre Delicatessen’s entrepreneurial skills have not only made it possible to provide venues for performers and non-traditional work but they have been able to raise £90,000 in additional funding and to give out £80,000 to support emerging artists.

It was a stimulating day, smoothly run by the Trust’s staff, which suggested opportunities that may not have been thought of and that brought theatre administrators, consultants and property developers into contact and in its coffee breaks and socialising gave plenty of opportunity to make new contacts and exchange ideas.

It firmly placed theatre, commercial or not for profit, in the world of hard business and entrepreneurship.

In a final speech to participants thanking the even’s sponsors, organisers, speakers and delegates, Tim Eyles, Chair of the Trustees, reminded everyone that when the Theatres Trust was set up it was given powers not only to advise but to buy and to run theatres. One cannot help but wonder what that may signify.