Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal aims to put the ‘business’ into show business

The Theatre Royal's sponsors for the current year take to the stage.

The Theatre Royal's sponsors for the current year take to the stage. - Credit: Archant

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds and, in the build up to the celebrations, the team are hoping to attract additional business sponsorship, DUNCAN BRODIE reports on how some of its existing commercial supporters value the opportunity.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, as seen from the Greene King brewery.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, as seen from the Greene King brewery. - Credit: Archant

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds first opened its doors in October 1819, the work of architect - and initially owner - William Wilkins.

Despite, or perhaps because of, a difficult history which has included several periods of closure, it is now one of only three theatres in the country to have survived from before the Victorian era without major alteration.

A major restoration, carried out between 2005 and 2007 at a cost of £5.3million, has made a visit to the theatre today an even more authentic Regency experience, but running the building as a theatre also remains as big a financial challenge as ever.

The second half of the 19th Century, following the disbandment of the regional company of players also owned by William Wilkins, was a period of particular hardship, the only brighter interlude coming in 1892 when the Theatre Royal hosted the world premiere of Charley’s Aunt, which went on to break box office records in London.

A three-year period of closure followed between 1903 and 1906, when some alterations were made to the building, (largely reversed in the recent restoration) and it closed again 1925, amid competition from cinema.

The building then became a barrel store for brewer Greene King, which had purchased the freehold of the theatre in 1920 in the hope of helping it survive.

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This time, the theatre was to remain dark for 40 years until, in 1965, it was revived following a local fund-raising effort. Greene King continues to own the freehold, although the building was handed over to the National Trust in 1975 under a 999-year lease, and it is now operated by an independent management company.

Plans for next year’s 50th anniversary celebrations have already attracted a £65,200 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards a project to create an archive of memories and stories from the people and organisations involved in the campaign to reopen the theatre.

There will also be an anniversary exhibition at the theatre, a series of talks and tours and a new, high-profile play, providing heritage learning and volunteer opportunities. School and community groups will also be involved in the celebrations.

However, sponsorship from local businesses remains a major element of the theatre’s fundraising, and it it hoped that the additional profile created by the anniversary celebrations will encourage more firms to come on board, helping to achieve a goal of £50,000 in business sponsorship towards the development department’s overall annual target of £180,000.

Julia Read, head of development, said that existing business sponsors – who already number more than a dozen – supported the theatre in a variety of ways, including sponsoring specific shows or a season of shows, or sponsoring tickets or a box within the theatre.

The theatre estimates that it generates nearly £5million for the local economy each year. Besides attracting more than 80,000 visitors to shows, involving around 240 individual performances, the theatre also engages in a variety of community and education projects and events in Suffolk.

Its season brochures have a print run of 30,000 and it has more than 40,000 people on its database, so providing a wide range of opportunities for businesses to promote their products and services.

The current line-up of sponsors includes Ashton KCJ, Gibbs Denley, Premier Printers, Farmers Club, Fiddian Interiors, Jacobs Allen, Bury Development, Cote Restaurant, BMI Hospital, Our Bury St Edmunds, Beckett Investment, Gross and Co, The Angel Hotel and the theatre’s neighbour Greene King which continues its involvement.

Mary Porch, head of business development at regional law firm Ashton KCJ said: “From Ashton KCJ’s viewpoint, the best sponsorship activities work on a range of different levels. Firstly they ensure that the firm’s name will be seen regularly by people who are part of our existing or potential client audience.

“Given the large numbers of people in the Bury area and beyond who go to the theatre and receive its literature mailings, and that Ashton KCJ looks after the legal needs of both businesses and individuals, this is an excellent fit.

“Secondly, any organisation or event that you sponsor needs to match in some way with your own firm’s values. The theatre does this perfectly, playing an important role in the local community through its extensive outreach work and other programmes as well as providing culture and entertainment.

“Those are the two fundamentals. For us there are two further considerations and the Theatre Royal delivers on both. One is that we are doing something positive to help a local charity. Although our sponsorship is funded on its own merits from our business development budget, there is a definite feel good factor about contributing positively to a charitable cause.

“Last but not least, the best sponsorship opportunities offer scope for corporate hospitality and/or greater involvement between the two organisations. Entertaining at the theatre is always a pleasure and one of our partners, Alan Brown, is now a trustee of the theatre.

“I’m very happy with our sponsorship relationship with the theatre and would encourage other organisations – although possibly not any more law firms! – to become involved.”

Dom South, marketing director at Greene King, speaks equally enthusiastically about the company’s links with the theatre.

“We are incredibly proud sponsors of the Theatre Royal, one of Bury’s most historic destinations,” he said. “The theatre represents a huge part of our history and heritage and it therefore makes sense to offer it our on-going support.

“By supplying the venue with Greene King IPA and Old Speckled Hen, our two most popular beers, it gives the brewery exposure across the wider region, with people travelling great distances to catch a show.

“The intimate relationship between Greene King and the Theatre Royal is evident in the name of the venue’s backstage area – The Greene Room.

“Aligning ourselves with the theatre in this way has proved of great benefit to both us and the theatre. We look forward to supporting and working with the venue for many more years to come.”

Ian White, managing director at Beckett Investment, said the company is keen supporter of the Theatre Royal because it is a “vibrant and cherished part of Bury St Edmunds’ culture”.

He added: “It creates innovative productions that challenge, entertain and stimulate audiences, and its educational and community-based programmes play a vital role in nurturing new talent.

“Our company has been providing investment advice for over 25 years, and is an accredited Chartered Financial Planner, so we are delighted to be associated with a local organisation that shares our commitment to excellence through professionalism and enthusiasm.”

Benjamin Fox, from Cote Brasserie, said: “As a new business in town, Cote were very keen to form a relationship with the Theatre Royal as we share a guest profile and we could both benefit from this partnership.

“We offer all ticket holders a complimentary kir royale when dining with us to make an evening out at the theatre that little bit more special.”

And another sponsor, Gary De’Ath from Gross and Co, added: “Our continuing enthusiastic support of the Theatre Royal is borne from its highly distinctive blend of artistic excellence imaginative and varied programming and distinctive venue.

“We are particularly appreciative of its broad reach across the Bury community and beyond, from lunchtime concerts to outreach and educative programmes.”

Any business wishing to discuss the sponsorship packages available, should call Julia Read on 01284 829942 or email julia@theatreroyal.org

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