Simon Daykin guides Bury Theatre Royal through new arts landscape

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the only working Regency theatre in country, is not only one of the jewels in the crown of local culture but is also a genuine national treasure. It’s a working Georgian theatre and artistic director Colin Blumenau continues his quest to illuminate our lost theatrical history with his dazzling Restoring the Repertoire programme.

The strength of the Theatre Royal is the fact that it is not a museum but a contemporary working theatre ? celebrating its past but working in the present.

Support from the Arts Council is hugely important as it not only gives a vital financial boost but also gives the theatre legitimacy when it comes to receiving funding from other bodies. This is not just true of the Theatre Royal but of all arts organisations. With Arts Council backing it gives the organisation a mark of quality which local government and private companies can use to justify support in times of economic austerity. As I have said in this column many times, it is vitally important that the arts be allowed to function during these troubling times. Not only do they provide much-needed relief to stressed individuals but the arts do provide a genuine boost to both the local and national economy.

Bury Theatre Royal, however, has more pressure than most as they are the custodians of an historic theatre building which was the subject of a �5.3million restoration programme from 2005-2007. Not only do they have to keep their company functioning through these difficult times they have to maintain a nationally important building.

Happily the landlords are working with the Theatre Royal to see how everyone can benefit from pooling resources. Luke Potter from The National Trust, owners of the theatre building, described it as a shining example of how all National Trust buildings should be run. He said: “This was designed as a theatre and is being used as a theatre and that’s how it should be.”

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This is music to all our ears but particularly to those of new chief executive Simon Daykin, who arrived in post on Monday from Pegasus Theatre in Oxford. Although he may have been among the dreaming spires for the last eight years he knows Suffolk well, having started his theatrical career as director of the Sudbury Quay.

He said that while funding is secure from the Arts Council, money from local authorities was still under negotiation.

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“What is clear to me is what a very special place this is. It has a long track record of high quality work and it has a very special place in the community. It is important to realise that we are going through change. I have been in the theatre business for 17 years and we are going through change. The economics are indeed very challenging – but this place is far too important to let things slide. We take these challenges very seriously and we will do everything we can to secure funding to allow our high quality artistic programme to continue and move it forward.”

Colin Blumenau said that under the new Arts Council arrangement they will receive a �120,000 a year from 2012 to 2015. “We are delighted we have become a National Portfolio Organisation and there are very few of them in the East of England. We are delighted that we have a bedrock of support for our programme. Also it’s worth stating that we provide a wide variety of work, it’s not just drama – we are talking about small and middle-scale dance, opera, literature, poetry and the whole gamut of what is available to us.

“As for the rest of the budget, we can’t really say until we know what the local authority stance is. But while the Arts Council and the local authorities are major funders, it is worth saying that we are able to look much further afield for added income because the theatre has a dedicated development team which goes out looking for money. Last year they brought in �170,000 into the building. Also because we are a joint heritage and arts company we have all the heritage funding system available to us.”

Both Simon and Colin said that they were determined to carry on producing homegrown theatre productions. Colin’s Restoring the Repertoire strand has helped the Theatre Royal carve out a very well defined niche in the regional arts landscape. It offers something unique and Colin has been invited to lecture at London’s Globe Theatre about how the Georgians presented Shakespeare.

Colin said that this autumn they are staging a new play, Dick Turpin, which will be directed by Abigail Anderson, but has been drawn from historical sources. “It’s a mixture of historical fact and romantic legend with contemporary songs written by Pat Whymark, who has a wonderful feel for this material.

“So in many ways staging plays like this is a reflection of what the theatre itself is all about. It celebrates its past but is a contemporary theatre, working in the modern world, presenting up-to-date theatre.”

Simon said that although they were very much aware we, as a society, were going through tough economic times there were opportunities out there and they needed to make the most of them.

Colin stressed that the Restoring the Repertoire programme had never been funded by the Arts Council. Those homegrown productions were funded by private donations or corporate sponsorship.

“We will go on seeking that money in a very competitive financial climate to make sure – without a shadow of a doubt – that those productions continue. We are unique and that needs to be cherished and nurtured. Funding will continue to be tough. You either throw your hands up and give in or you do something about it. We plan to do something about it.”

Simon said that he would do everything he could to make Colin’s life as artistic director as trouble-free as possible. “The produced programme is what makes this theatre special.”

It also needs to be said that the Theatre Royal – along with many other theatres in the region – do a huge amount of educational work that flies beneath the radar. They are providing educational opportunities not only for the future generation of theatre professionals but also work for social services, adult education as well as public speaking workshops for businesses. Theatres in general are vital part of our communities and this is why local authorities should be willing to stand up, after the election dust has settled, and say that the arts are worth funding because they do make a vital contribution to our society.

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