VIEWS: A time for focus

Well, I hadn’t expected for this to be a continuing series ,but things are changing quite quickly so I felt it was important to take a few moments to make a few observations.

Since the West End (and other shows) have reopened, albeit piecemeal, it has been a turbulent time. Some shows have realised that it will take longer to get back to pre-pandemic audiences, and have consequently postponed or cancelled national tours, adding further uncertainty to the ever-shifting schedules of regional theatres.

In the West End, shows at the Coliseum , the Dominion and Royal Court have had backstage or cast members register a positive COVID-test, which meant that their show had to close down for 10 days while everyone isolates. Let’s compare this to a footballer, who tests positive but the team can continue training and playing. Level playing field, I think not.

While 10 days closure seems very cautious indeed, what we must also remember are the knock-on effects of this. Hard-pressed Box Offices are beseiged with calls from customers wanting to reschedule their visits, not all of them happy or empathetic, with all the accompanying stress that brings (not all customers are lovely about changing their plans, believe you me!).

Further, you may not know but everyone who is forced to isolate receives no pay whatsoever. Can you imagine how precarious this all feels to a performer or backstage worker who was so elated at getting a job after 16 months, only to have the financial lifeline it provides pulled from under their feet. Requests have been made to adjust the quarantine requirements, but of course we see how slowly this government acts- if at all. This is a key impact of the Government not providing support in the form of an insurance-backed scheme to compensate producers for any losses due to Covid stoppages. Exactly the same sort of insurance coverage helped the Film and TV industry get back to work over a year ago. Why did the Government not help theatres too? You decide.

I am sure you can appreciate this makes no sense at all, but then why should we ask for sense from a government which clearly hasn’t a clue, with no concept of right or wrong, fair or discriminatory, compassionate or cruel. They just don’t care.

I have heard that performers in cancelled shows are receiving abusive or threatening messages via social media, which is utterly unacceptable. If any performers or crew member receives abuse, they should report it to the police immediately. It’s understandable that people are upset. A LOT of people are upset. But being upset at the wrong people is wrong – and no way to get anything sorted.

This COVID mess , if it is anyone’s fault, is the Government’s -from mistiming lockdowns and unlockings, to giving incorrect and confusing advice from start to finish which now leaves us back in the situation we were in at Christmas, with cases likely to soar to new heights, putting evermore pressure on our valued NHS.

Big shows like HAIRSPRAY at the Coliseum are taking on 12 extra performers to try to cover them for any future COVID- related restrictions, but very few shows (if any in this appallingly difficult time) could afford the budget to do that. And just imagine how that is cutting into the profit margin for what was already a tightly-forecast 12-week run.

Meanwhile, another change to contend with is that audiences are now sitting up close and personal to each other in venues packed to full capacity after the misleadingly-titled Freedom Day. My projection is that many will not feel ready for this after more than a year of separation – and that consequently, they will feel desperately uncomfortable, unsafe and unsure – they will reschedule where they can, others will simply not go and others wont buy tickets until they see the case numbers going down in a big way.

The Summer is usually one of theatres’ boom times, as tourists flock to our world-beating entertainment scene. The tourists aren’t here this year, so venues have to work even harder to get UK audiences in- and it’s not easy in a heatwave as we’ve had this last week, even in normal times. Theatres will be more than ever subject to last-minute booking which brings uncertainty as to their financial projections, and may certainly cause some producers to slash ticket prices in a panic to get any price for a seat. I hope this won’t happen, but rising case numbers and extreme weather make this more likely. I hope not, but,….

Theatres Trust’s Theatres at Risk presentation highlights concerns and causes for optimism

On Tuesday 20th July at 4.00pm, Claire Appleby, Architectural Advisor at Theatres Trust presented a hugely engaging and exhaustive (but not exhausting) overview of Theatres at Risk in the UK, highlighting successes and losses and pointing up where there is hope of revival. Claire’s passion, knowledge, focus and love of her subject helped her audience enjoy the event in ways that many other presenters could not have achieved.

The Theatres Trust was established 60 years ago, as a response to the loss of over 800 theatres across the UK in the years prior to its establishment, and during its lifetime has put its authoritative weight behind many community and arts groups in saving theatres from the wrecker’s ball.

It is worth remembering that the Theatres Trust’s involvement in supporting retention, revival and reuse has contributed to 80 out of 177 theatres being open for performance or other use since the Theatres at Risk Register started fifteen years ago.

Claire talked us through the 31 theatres which are on the 2021 Theatres at Risk Register, an annual event which aims to publicise our irreplaceable theatre heritage. The list has at its core a number of theatres which are unused, hastening decline through decay- frustratingly, many have been on this annual list every year since its inception in 2006. But one of the great benefits of the list is that it sparks public attention and concern- and in some cases, spurs further efforts to retain them.

Claire described the way the list was created, with theatres being given a 1-3 (3 being the highest) score in each of three categories – Community Value (the theatre must have the potential to be returned to theatre use and have potential to benefit its locality), Star Rating (listed status which recognises great architecture or otherwise significant buildings) and Risk Factor (whether the building has operational issues, is vacant, deteriorating, vulnerable to redevelopment) .

Brighton Hippodrome, currently on the Theatres Trust’s Theatres at Risk 2021 list

The really valuable thing about a theatre’s score from this assessment therefore highlights the theatres most at risk, of most architectural value and with the most potential to be returned to theatre use. So, actually, its a really positive and forward-thinking way to identify an at risk building which gives it a better chance to be successfully brought back into use.

Further to this, in 2019 the Trust set up the Theatres at Risk Capacity Fund which is supported by a small number of organisations who provide funding sums. These are allocated as small-scale grants to theatres at the initial stages of their rehabilitation journey. These funds help groups pay for the very early-stages work which is almost impossible to fund elsewhere these days- things like exploratory work, business advice, planning advice, consultancy, viability studies, etc. In its three years of operation, the fund has benefitted 15 theatres at risk with funds totalling £203,000.

Claire’s 100-minute marathon was certainly a tale of highs and lows, with several theatres on the brink of making strides forward, including the vandalised-by-bulldozer Derby Hippodrome which currently exists without a roof, . On the other end of the scale, several venues were teetering on the edge of demolition, which is most regrettable, the worst loss of which is the fabulous 1500-seat Dudley Hippodrome, which the Council has received £25million from central funds to demolish it and build a college. This effectively leaves the town without a fit-for purpose theatre space, the old Town Hall which is sometimes used for events has no raked seating and draws endless complaints from customers. While its still standing, we can hope. Similarly, The Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green, London has been slated for demolition, although the decision has recently been recalled so there is a glimmer of hope there.

The one addition to the 2021 list was the CoOp Hall in Ramsbottom, which is an 1870s music hall unused since 1944. A recent rediscovery in remarkably good condition, it was originally slated for housing redevelopment, but thankfully all concerned move quickly, Remains . Bury council took swift action to protect the building, Theatres Trust applied for listed status, and much more work has been done to secure the building’s survival, including the local preservation group having just been allotted an award from the Architectural Heritage Fund

2020-21 has obviously been a particularly difficult year for all venues, especially disused buildings of all types, and therefore the work of the Trust’s Theatres at Risk program has become even more important.

The art of reviving a theatre- and it is most definitely an art- involves establishing, nurturing and funding a complex network of relationships between owners, landlords, leaseholders, developers, community groups, councils, arts organisations, potential grant aiders and potential supporters. The Trust’s skill, perseverance and diligence in its work in this area is not to be underestimated!

What the Theatres Trust has demonstrated is that by using their status and authority in considered and constructive ways, together with targeted grants from supportive funders they can immeasurably help those “on the ground” with the spirt and will but little experience tap into the support that they need to be able to create compelling applications for planning, listing and funding, and by opening doors to experience through early seed funding, they are actively contributing to reviving as many of our irreplaceable theatres as possible, and for that they deserve our praise and gratitude.

Hulme Hippodrome hosts a garden party on July 25th

Having just been delighted by the arrival in the post of my new SAVE HULME HIPPO T-shirt (see below), I was further pleased to see the announcement of a Garden Party at the Hulme Hippodrome on Sunday 25th July, from 1pm until 4pm which is, as they describe it, “an afternoon of food, talks and music to say Thank You for your support”.

1.00pm – Welcome drink, registering and signing people up

1.15pm – Walk around of Hulme Hip 

1.30pm   Presentation from the board  Directors + questions

2.00pm – Lunch + musical accompaniment 

2.40pm   Heritage Talk

3.00pm – Introduce future events

3.15pm – Planning for the future of the Hippodrome

Although too far away to attend myself, I hope that anyone in or around the Manchester area will get out and support them.

I’m delighted with my Save the Hippo T-shirt!

SAVE presents useful online Guide to Heritage Campaigning

Image: Lee Hall, Liverpool (John Roberts)

On Wednesday 28 July from 11:00 – 11:45 BST, you’re invited to get into Heritage campaigning with Ben Oakley

Here’s a great way to contribute in the fight to save historic buildings under threat near you You’re invited to join SAVE’s conservation officer Ben Oakley to discuss some of the tips and tricks for campaigning to save and reuse historic buildings of all shapes and sizes. From Lady Gaga themed marches to imaginative reuse schemes, Ben will be discussing some of strategies which have helped SAVE’s campaigns succeed in recent years.

You can book tickets via Eventbrite here. By purchasing a ticket you will also receive a link to watch the recording in case you are unable to make the live event or if you want to rewatch.

Tickets are complimentary for our Saviours / £3 for Friends / £5 for Members of the Public. To find out more about supporting SAVE and receiving discounts on future events please visit their Support Us page.

The event will be taking place online via Zoom. Please ensure that you have the software downloaded prior to the event – click above for more information.

Cultural Conversations focuses on the next generations

The Rt Hon The Lord Mayor of the City of London and the Genesis Foundation invite you to join them for the fifth in the series of Cultural Conversations: ‘Young People and The Arts: Making Space and Opening Doors’ taking place online at 5-6:30pm on Monday 26th July.

The Cultural Conversations series is a sequence of focused debates around Arts and Culture in the City of London. This fifth Conversation will be chaired by Gemma Cairney, in conversation with Cherry Eckel, Artist and Advisory Group member at Boundless Theatre; Neil Griffiths, Chief Executive at Arts Emergency; Montana Hall, Founder of Run the Check and Trustee at The Photographers Gallery; Renee Odjidja, Curator: Youth Programmes at Whitechapel Gallery; and Abdul Shayek, Artistic Director at Tara Theatre, and Lemn Sissay OBE, Poet, Playwright and Broadcaster.

Please click here to register