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) .
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.