From success to success but the work goes on

Theatres Trust, the national advisory public body for theatres, has published the 2020 Theatres at Risk Register. The list is now made up of thirty theatres, of which three are in each of Scotland and Wales with the remainder in England.

Joining the Register this year in 8th place is the Groundlings Theatre in Portsea, Portsmouth. This 1784 Grade II* listed building was originally designed as a free school with classrooms on the ground floor and an upper storey used as a theatre and for concerts and meetings.

The school closed in the first half of the 20th century becoming a youth training centre in 1962 and the Groundlings Theatre in 2010, retaining many of its original features, such as the proscenium arch and fireplaces, through its changing functions.

A break-in last year damaged the building, which, together with the vandalising of computers and resulting loss of data, has left the theatre financially exposed. But this is not the only reason the theatre is at risk.

In the face of limited support from the local authority, the building owner has pursued a development opportunity for the theatre's car park which has led to a student accommodation scheme to be submitted for planning permission. In the view of the Theatres Trust, this ill-considered scheme fails to recognise the historic significance of the building and will do more harm than good to the viability of the venue.

This reflects the Register criteria, a combination of weighted characteristics which means that the buildings that take the highest positions on the list are not necessarily those at greatest risk but whose disappearance would represent the greatest loss because of their unique character or because of the loss of a viable performance venue.

But at the launch of this year's Register on Tuesday, it was far from all bad news. Two further theatres have joined the existing 80 success stories of the Theatre Trust's last dozen or so years. Now off the list are Bradford Odeon and Peterborough New Theatre.

The 1930s Bradford Odeon is scheduled to reopen in the next year or two with the NEC Group partnering with Bradford Live as operators, whilst Peterborough New Theatre, previously an Odeon cinema, reopened some six months ago boasting finely restored interiors and is now under the management of Selladoor Worldwide.

Other successes include the reopening of the £42 million refurbished Fairfield Halls in Croydon, where the Trust was involved for a number of years, and the purchase and planned restoration of the Grade II* listed 1930s Walthamstow Granada by the London borough of Waltham Forest, which is to be operated by Soho Theatre.

The Theatres at Risk Register is just one part of the work of the Theatres Trust, which includes being a statutory consultee when theatre buildings are in the planning system.

More widely, it safeguards important historic venues and fosters quality and context awareness giving planning, development sustainability and design advice, and the provision of grants.

2019 saw the pilot Capacity Building Programme, which provided funding and advice from the Trust for six buildings on the Theatres at Risk Register to finance early stage activities such as viability studies, surveys and the preparation of business plans.

These grants ranged from £23,400 to Swindon Mechanics' Institute, towards a study to identify best end use, to £5,500 to Spilsby Theatre in Lincolnshire towards improving skills, knowledge and capacity needed to develop their project.

Financial support doesn’t just go to theatres at risk. Capital fund, The UK Theatres Small Grants Scheme and sister fund London Small Theatres Grants Scheme provide up to £5,000 for urgent repairs, environmental and access improvements and similar needs out of the reach of theatres run by charities and not-for-profits.

Operating as charity, the Theatres Trust is itself funded from various sources. First amongst these are its trading activities as freeholders of three London venues, the Lyric, Garrick and Lyceum Theatres, which fund its core work.

Amongst its scheme funders are the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation and Charles Michael Holloway Charitable Trust and The Mackintosh Foundation and Fawn James at Soho Estates who support The UK Theatres Small Grants Scheme and the London Small Theatres Grants Scheme respectively.

The Trust also runs a corporate support scheme but its only regular public funding comes in the form of a small grant from Historic England.

Giving the keynote speech at Tuesday's launch Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, Helen Whately MP spoke as a "believer in the importance of having a local theatre".

Whately acknowledged that "things have been tough" and reiterated the government's ambition to level things up across the country, not just in relation to jobs and wages, but also "cultural participation", citing the £250 million Culture Investment Fund and the Future High Streets Fund as opening the way for this.

The theatre industry could, however, justify hearing this with some scepticism.

The Culture Investment Fund press release indicates that investment will "reinforce culture’s role at the heart of communities" and "revitalise existing assets" and "creative industry infrastructure".

I find something here is noticeable by its absence. Although, it has to be said, "museums" get seven mentions with the National Railway Museum a further three and "libraries" five, the document makes not a single mention of performance, theatre, dance, opera, music or performing arts in more general terms or indeed any other arts, presumably collecting all these various and many endeavours together under the moniker "creative industries".

This suggests to me that there will be much competition and slim pickings indeed when the money remaining after the museums, infrastructure and existing assess have had their share is split amongst all those "creative industries".

The December 2019 announcement for the Future High Streets Fund makes no mention of creativity or arts even in general terms and neither does it mention culture. Read through the Future High Streets Fund literature online and the story remains largely the same. The October 2018 Policy Paper even appears to distance itself from cultural endeavours, pushing this onto other agencies, saying:

"The fund will also support the regeneration of heritage high streets… [to] restore historic high street properties through Historic England, and equipping communities with their own resources to put historic buildings back into economic use—for example as residential buildings, new work spaces or cultural venues, supported by the Architectural Heritage Fund."

The budget paper makes much of high streets being a "crucial part of our communities" but it is going to take much more than reducing congestion and cutting rates on public toilets to help struggling arts organisation, so just how Whately's statement will play out in actuality remains to be seen.

Readers interested in theatre buildings may wish to enter the Theatres Trust national photography competition. Full details are available on the web site. The closing date is 30 March.