Dramatic Exhortations at Theatres Trust Conference

Published: 13 June 2013
Reporter: Howard Loxton

This year’s Theatres Trust Conference kicked off with a rallying call in the opening keynote speech by Ruth Mackenzie, director of last year’s Cultural Olympiad, to influence the upcoming Public Spending Review while Nica Burns, Chief Executive of Nimax Theatres, warned of the need for extra vigilance by theatres whose operation could be threatened when the conference turned to consideration of new planning initiatives.

Ruth Mackenzie’s main message was that in making the case for theatre to national and local politicians, lobbying from theatres and theatre organisations themselves should only be part of the strategy. Even more important was to mobilise audiences and other theatre users. She pointed out that the demographic of those who buy the majority of theatre tickets—women from 35-60—matches that of the very people whom MPs and councillors are trying to seduce into voting for them.

Direct approaches, such as visits to MPs' regular surgeries, have much more effect than just signing petitions and, in “six-degrees-of-separation” style, we should be thinking whom we know who knows someone who may have more immediate access to influence those making decisions.

Another keynote speech from Parliamentary Undersecretary of State Baroness Hanham made the present government sound incredibly supportive of the arts but that does not make the need for action any less urgent, though clearly this should not be thought of as a party issue.

Theatre needs to make its case not just in terms of immediate economic value—a higher than average income generated compared to investment, employment created, local economy boosted—but also the value that theatre contributes in what it provides for the community in services and focus as well as its vital contribution to national culture. See Arts Council England’s Advocacy Toolkit.

During the rest of the day, the conference produced many examples of how big the contribution a theatre makes can be. Following on from last year’s conference with its emphasis on how theatres can maximise their use and place themselves at the heart of the community, there were speakers from theatres involved in capital projects which have developed their capacity to serve and engage with the community and presentations which showed how theatres have matched new government policies to promote local and neighbourhood ownership of planning decisions and community assets, which have created new opportunities for theatres.

Jack Mellor, manager of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, described how they had not only extended their 1970s building but developed facilities on a new site, freeing up space and creating more which has enabled new initiatives, while the theatre has also taken over an ice rink and a swimming pool which it now manages.

Jim Beirne spoke of the regeneration of Live Theatre in Newcastle, of which he is chief executive, which will create an extra half million pound annual income as part of its thriving quayside.

Colin Marr, director of the Eden Court in Inverness, a theatre which serves a huge part of Scotland—some of their audience take two ferries and three long bus journeys travelling for two whole days to get there—that within three years of redevelopment has seen 70% of the population attending a performance.

Anne Stapleton of Glasgow Citizen’s described new development there, in collaboration with Glasgow council, and spoke of the need to consult audiences and involve them from the start.

Others placing an emphasis on collaboration with local government included Ian Pratt vice chairman and technical officer of the Kings Theatre, Southsea. The council bought his theatre and leased it to a trust that depends heavily on volunteers—and he stressed the importance of keeping those volunteers motivated and happy as they work alongside paid staff.

Deborah Aydon, executive director of Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse emphasised their community involvement with a thriving bistro an important part of it.

Speaking of redevelopment plans at the Lyric, Hammersmith, with its emphasis on work with young people, Executive Director Jessica Hepburn described how their theatre did not have a development department—senior managers in every department have to take responsibility for income generation and business development. They need to have a clear idea of the theatre’s mission and make connections for the right person to ask the other right person at the right time, though she admited that in that equation for success she always seemed to get one element wrong.

Joselle Steele of Livity explained their role of putting together premises with unused or underused spaces and young people in need of somewhere for their activities. They are not dealing just in performance spaces but any available area. Her organisation works with people from 16-25 across the UK but they point the way to how making a space freely available for any activity is a way of bringing people into the theatre and strengthening its importance to the community, which is now recognized in assessing value.

The Marina Theatre, Lowestoft was run by the local authority at a loss in the same manner as before they took it over with amateur shows its biggest earner. Attempts to outsource failed so its then manager Martin Halliday put in his own tender with a radically different approach. He told conference how, operating as a charitable trust, he has led it through refurbishment to successfully presenting a varied commercial programme including both “fish and chips and champagne and caviar” as he put it—including visiting opera at £35 a ticket—and made it a success.

Structural engineer Peter Steer is director of Derby Hippodrome Restoration Trust. Botched attempts to repair a leak brought down that theatre’s roof and auditorium wall and the top of the stage house. Developers would have liked the site, but recent legislation has enabled the trust get it registered as a community asset which establishes a moratorium to give them time to raise funds to acquire it. With the surroundings now designated a conservation area there is added protection. Feasibility studies have been made and proposed plans produced.

Other speakers included Alan Bishop, South Bank chief executive, on the development of their site and the contribution of its commercial area (including the tax implications), Neil Constable, chief executive of the Globe, on the creation of their new indoor theatre (named for Sam Wanamaker), Dave Moutry, Director of the Cornerhouse and Library in Manchester, on their joint new development and Martin Sutherland, chief executive of Northampton Arts Management Trust which runs the Royal and Derngate Northampton and the Core at Corby.

Flick Rea, chair of the Local Government Association, former actress and long time local councillor, gave her astringent view pointing out that local government is all about where people live and reminding us of that important statistic that every £1 invested in the arts produce a return four times as great. Nigel Hugill, chair of the RSC, pointed out that his theatre was considered by English Heritage to be an industrial building that was part of the landscape and that theatre had indeed become the industry of Stratford, reporting that they now had permanent planning permission to retain the Courtyard Theatre.

For those planning new developments, Gemma Playford, senior project manager at Arup, warned against presenting your own ideas to your design teams; far better she suggested to present them with the problems that need solving.

Trudi Eliott of the Royal Town Planning Institute drew attention to the effect of planning changes. The new document, now only 50 pages long, needs studying, especially what it says about health and cultural well-being and community, emphasising that you need to know about your local plans and the place of the local authority in the planning process and get neighbourhood planners on board and find out about local enterprise partnerships.

While most people think of planning issues in terms of their own buildings, whether new theatres or refurbishments and improvements, Nica Burns rang the alarm bells over what other people may be planning to do. To safeguard the operation of their own theatres Nimax now daily monitors planning applications everywhere it has a theatre.

There is supposed to be a mandatory consultation with the Theatres Trust for any development that could affect a theatre but that is clearly not happening and the Trust may not find out until too late. She cited one situation where someone with a balcony to their apartment sought their legal right to enjoy it undisturbed despite the fact that it was beside a theatre dock where get-ins and get-outs had taken place at weekends for a century.

Even the stage access to the London Palladium, where large crowds can sometimes assemble in the hope of seeing stars, could have resulted in similar claims had an application been allowed. It is not just building development that needs to be watched. Traffic planning proposals can also have a serious affect on theatres, whether a matter of disturbance or of access.

As a tailpiece, Tom Morris, now artistic director at Bristol Old Vic, presented a brief look at that theatre’s latest refurbishment. He quoted the comment made at the time of its first make-over in 1764 when local pundit declared, “if people go there once they will want to go there every night”.

Bristol, he thought, understood culture and it was at the heart of the city, indeed its present mayor was responsible for buying the Tobacco Factory for use as a theatre. Bristol’s Theatre Royal may be our oldest theatre in continuous use as a playhouse but this was not a simple restoration project, though the auditorium refurbishment has looked back to its original form.

Seating has to fit modern bodies and the original pit level was designed for standees. That has been raised to match equivalent head heights with people sitting. Access to the city has been opened, incidentally revealing more of the theatres history. For instance the criteria have been Does it work? Is it beautiful? Does it belong to the people of Bristol? This combination of 250 years of theatre history and contemporary engagement made an excellent coda.

Before sending participants off to a reception with the Mayor of Westminster, conference chair Vikki Heywood reminded those attending of what they had heard: that planning had got simpler and may be easier, that capital projects used to be about your own building, now they are about supportive development. We need to get the message across about the importance of our theatre. We should go out there and tell our story. We are the best story tellers and we do tell our stories brilliantly.