Colchester: Mercury Theatre chief Theresa Veith puts the ‘business’ into show business
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
Running a successful theatre involves a unique blend of creative and business talents. Theresa Veith, executive director of the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, tells Sheline Clarke how it’s done.
Colchester’s Mercury Theatre provides its audience with a rich blend of touring productions and home spun entertainment created under its Made in Colchester banner.
As such it is the county’s leading venue in terms of the theatre it produces or co-produces, as well as receiving productions that arrive on its doorstep ‘on the back of a truck’.
It employs more than 60 people on a permanent basis and has an equal number of freelancers and casual staff who join the team when needed, and a turnover of £3million a year, making it a sizeable business in the heart of Colchester.
Theresa Veith joined the team in 2012 along with artistic director Dan Buckroyd and together they are co-chief executives of the organisation.
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“When Daniel and I were appointed there was an opportunity to look at how the organisation is positioned within the community and the wider region and nationally, and we are keen to increase the number of co-productions we do than then tour to other locations and in doing so take the name of the Mercury further afield,” said Theresa.
Producing its own theatre means that The Mercury employs people in all manner of backstage roles, including set building, costume and prop design and making, as well as on the technical side.
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Its forthcoming production of Betty Blue Eyes, for example, is a co-production with three other theatres from Salford, West Yorkshire and Liverpool. The rehearsals start in Colchester and after a run at The Mercury will visit the other co-producing theatres before also visiting venues in Ipswich, Oxford and Norwich.
“It is quite a substantial tour which promotes us and the work we do to a much wider audience,” said Theresa. “It also consolidates and builds on the work already done in terms of the quality of our productions and helps us focus on how we develop the theatre and the business to strengthen and maximise its impact and ensure its resilience going forward.”
The Mercury receives funding from the Arts Council, Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council and is a registered charity.
The main theatre has 499 seats, while a smaller studio theatre can seat 80. The theatre is programmed for 48 weeks of the year offering a mixture of Made in Colchester productions, visiting companies and one-nighters, as well as allocating time for community and other groups to use its facilities and stage.
At the heart of its raison d’etre is to engage and educate, and really play a part in community life.
It has an extensive education and outreach programme, working with everyone from pre-school children, through youth groups and the over 55s who are all welcome to take part in a range of activities to develop theatre skills which often result in a stage performance.
There are also opportunities for the audience to interact with actors and the backstage crew and inclusive performances which allow more people to enjoy theatre.
Last year a project involving 16-25 year olds culminated in stage performances of Quadrophenia and the search is now on for young enthusiasts to take part in this year’s project, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
As well as giving more people the opportunity to get involved in theatre, the outreach programmes also offer young people a sample of what life in a theatre is like and perhaps tempt them into considering a career in the arts.
Theresa believes that it certainly helps in the recruitment process.
“We have quite a skilled and stable workforce and we haven’t experienced too many skills gaps when we are recruiting. I think opportunities like the young company project and work experience give people the chance to have a taste of working in the theatre sector and it is really helpful to assist them in their decision making in terms of a career. We also encourage work placements from universities which means that when students finish their course, they are work ready, and have that vital experience. That is good for the theatre and also good for them in their own journey and development.”
So it is with an enviable riches of skills that Theresa can plan for the future of the theatre and is optimistic that green shoots in the economy will encourage more paying customers through the door.
“It is always challenging for people to find money for discretionary spend in times of recession, and we ourselves suffered some funding cuts, so we have dipped slightly in terms of audience numbers. That could also have something to do with the change in senior management the new artistic vision we have for the future of the organisation. We have had a lot of positive feedback and people are really interested and excited about what we are doing; lots of people embrace change but also there are people who like things the way they are and a period of change will have an impact, but I wouldn’t call that significant, and we remain confident for the future.
“There were redundancies associated with the funding cuts but the organisation adapted and we remain as fleet of foot as we can.”
Part of the vision for the theatre is to make investment to improve the audience experience.
The building, opened in 1972, remains largely unchanged save cosmetic changes in public areas like the foyer.
“I think it would benefit from investment to upgrade the facilities and make sure it is ready for the next 50 years,” said Theresa.
“We are keen to improve the audience experience inside the building, so that includes ensuring smaller queues and increasing circulation space, as well as improving things like the toilets.
“We are also keen to redevelop the Studio, to improve the sound-proofing and ventilation and create more flexible seating and help it reach its potential and to become a stage for new and emerging artists and theatre companies and performances that require a more intimate theatrical experience.”
As with any business, the theatre needs to make a profit in order to reinvest and continue improving, which Theresa says is “absolutely essential”.
Approximately two thirds of the turnover is from box offices sales with the final third in grants, which largely funds the Made in Colchester initiative.
Average price for a ticket is £25, with entry levels at £10. For Made in Colchester productions a number of £10 tickets are available for every performance, with discounted tickets for seniors and the disabled and standby £2 tickets for job seekers available for some weekday matinees.
The pricing policy dovetails with the Mercury’s ethos of inclusion and attracting the maximum number of people to engage with its work and enjoy its performances.
What also helps with the theatre’s work is its engagement with the local business community.
Its corporate support scheme offers the opportunity for local businesses to champion its work in return for certain benefits and the chance to be a part of its ongoing success. Sponsorship for specific shows, programmes or even an entire season are available and the theatre is also keen for businesses to use its facilities for events and meetings.
Theresa hopes that as we come out of recession then more businesses will be looking of ways to support the arts and organisations like the Mercury and will consider them when considering how to fulfil their corporate social responsibility obligations.
“The corporate support scheme is something we are developing as we go forward,” said Theresa, “alongside trying to diversify our funding and making us more resilient. Ultimately we believe the work we do with the community, to engage people and inspire people is good and we believe corporate sponsors would be pleased to be involved in that.”