Bury St Edmunds: Theatre chairman want to “keep door open” for Apex partnership

A LEADING figure at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds has described the presentation of plans to merge its management with the Apex as “not acceptable” – but is not ruling out a future partnership.

Proposals to amalgamate the management of the theatre and the Apex to reduce costs and to “focus” the town’s art scene have caused widespread controversy. Supporters of the theatre, some of whom protested outside the meeting last night, have repeatedly questioned the sustainability of the Apex’s �775,000 subsidy and warned the so-called “single operation” business plan could put the playhouse at risk.

But last night, Stephen Bourne, chair of Bury St Edmunds Theatre Management Ltd, the charity that runs the theatre, said although the presentation of the single operation was “not acceptable” he wanted to “keep the door open for partnership”.

Speaking at St Edmundsbury Borough Council’s overview and scrutiny committee meeting last night, he also suggested he thought close collaboration with the Apex was vital to create an arts “hub for the region”.

Mr Bourne, who was only elected last week, also criticised “a poorly-conceived PR job” that created “community anger” and “polarised opinions” around the concept of amalgamated management. During a short presentation to councillors and watched by dozens of theatre supporters, he said that although a discussion of a management merger had caused deep concern, it had been helpful in highlighting key issues.

Mr Bourne said the trust wanted to “recognise” work that had already been carried out in the council’s two-year review of the Apex and “meld together” several strands into “one plan”.

Mr Bourne, who said the single proposal would go out for public consultation ready for approval in February and implementation in March, told the meeting the “aspirations of all stakeholders” would be considered.

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Describing the job as a “balancing act,” he added: “It is an act we believe to be achievable and will keep the door open for partnership [with the Apex] for the greater benefit of the general public.”

When asked by Cllr Helen Levack how he proposed to overcome animosity shown by some theatre supporters towards the Apex, Mr Bourne replied, “by allaying their fears”.

“We are here to look after the theatre, but also understand the theatre can be looked after by some kind of partnership with the Apex.”

The theatre chairman, who is the president of Cambridge University Press, also hinted that he saw the partnership between the Apex and the playhouse as being very close – telling councillors he wanted to “build the reputation of both the venues” and “make a hub for the region”.

Both Mr Bourne and Simon Daykin, chief executive at the Theatre Royal, echoed sentiments put forward by the Theatre Support Group (TSG) that savings could be achieved by combining the venues’ box offices and increasing collaboration without amalgamating management.

But Mr Bourne added: “All of the efficiencies could take place on their own and whether we could do that is something we will look at. But, my guess is it will not get us far enough.”

Judith Shallow, a member of the TSG and former chair of the venue, said funders listed in the council report only represented 20% of the theatre’s stakeholders and asked the councillors that all forms of collaboration between the venues be explored.

John Davidson, representing Arts Council England, one of the Theatre Royal’s major funders, said they did not “back a particular model”.

The committee agreed with the recommendation “that all opportunities for collaboration with the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, continue to be explored”.