Embracing the challenges that face regional theatre
East Anglian arts organisations have experienced some seismic changes over the past couple of years. The downturn in the economy has affected both the audiences spending power and the cash available to the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund to provide grants necessary to keep venue doors to open.
Local authorities are also having to look long and hard at spending plans but fortunately in this part of the world, local politicians recognise the value – both economic and in terms of morale – of making sure the arts thrive. Arts tourism is now a major part of the East Anglian economy.
As Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal executive director Simon Daykin hands over the reins to his successor Karen Simpson he acknowledges that there are challenging times ahead. He says that theatres are going to have to be increasingly flexible when it comes to programming and not be afraid to bring back shows that have a long shelf life.
“Bringing back Mansfield Park in the autumn season was entirely a commercial driven decision. It was an excellent production, so we are not sacrificing quality. It had a hugely successful tour after playing to sell-out shows here in Bury and it seemed right that we bring the show back to allow local audiences to enjoy it again. When we first staged it here we were playing to 82% capacity – which is unheard of.
“We have discovered that there is an appetite for it. We hope that the income it generates will help provide the theatre with a nice financial boost in the last part of the year.”
He says that striking the right balance between quality, artistic integrity and commercial drivers has never been so important.
“There is a scarcity of high quality touring product around which to build a season and if you can create something yourself, then get it out to other theatres you are generating revenue and helping to resolve a real problem for middle-scale venues like us.”
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Funding cuts had not only affected venues but had also hit touring companies hard too. The result was that many top quality mid-scale companies had either cut costs by focusing on village halls and small-scale venues or had gone to the other extreme and invested more money in becoming a large scale touring outfit looking to recoup costs by attracting large audiences in big theatres. Neither option helped mid-sized theatres like Bury Theatre Royal.
Simon says that there is no easy answer but the best that a theatre producer can offer is a trust-worthy reputation when it comes to the quality of the work. They always produce a show which is well written, well directed, well cast and well performed allied with a production that captures the audience’s imagination – which is certainly true of both Mansfield Park and Stage Fright at Bury.
Simon said that the challenge that Karen must embrace is the fact that the Theatre Royal can’t exist as an island.
“The performing arts landscape in Suffolk is now radically different to how it was ten years ago. The Theatre Royal has to be much more integrated, it has to be much more porous, it needs to be absorbing things from elsewhere and giving things back.
“It needs to be working with events like the Bury Festival. Now that the Bury Festival is back to ten days next year, there is real scope for the theatre to be at the heart of the festival.
“It should be showcasing all sorts of peculiar things. You can’t get away from the fact that this is a 200 year old theatre and it has an important role to play in highlighting the heritage of Georgian theatre but that’s not just what it does. I am fascinated by the drive and the energy that surrounded the theatre in 1964 when it was brought out of moth balls and we should be looking at that again and saying 50 years later how can be re-engineer and harness that energy to propel us further into the 21st century.
“Times are tough and you are only to get through them with public support. There is less money in the economy, less money to be spent on leisure pursuits and in order to survive theatre has to be a lot more entrepreneurial. It’s not just looking at ways of saving money but also investigating ways of generating more income. Let’s be honest we can’t cut any more. There is no fat to cut. If you cut any more the organisation won’t function so we have to look at ways of making money and touring is just one way. If the product is good, if the marketing is good, there is a public demand for the work and it will sell and we can reinvest those profits in the next big idea.”
There are challenging times ahead.