Wednesday, 24 October 2012

What we take for granted, we could so easily lose.

Last Saturday I took part in an open forum to debate the future of our town's much-loved theatre, the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds. If you've never heard of it before, you should look it up, as it's one of our country's real gems, not least because it's the only surviving Regency theatre in the UK.

Being a 'punter', you never really get to see what goes on behind the scenes, and by this I don't mean 'backstage'. The theatre actually offers many opportunities to take a tour and I'd encourage any visitor to give it a whirl.  On this occasion, I refer to the hard work that takes place to deliver a creative programme and the management of a venue to ensure that it stands up to the adversity of modern times. 

And on Saturday I caught a long glimpse of this, during the Open Space event that was attended by members of the theatre's Board, its staff and volunteers, as well as interested members of the public, offering an opportunity to debate issues that are crucial to ensuring a bold, exciting and sustainable future for the Theatre Royal.

It soon became clear that it's a future that faces a cold climate of continued funding cuts combined with a well-recognised credit-crunch that has already tightened the wallets of its audiences.  Against this, the theatre has to ensure quality programming to compete for attention in a society that suffers from information overload, busy schedules and a whole host of entertainment offerings on tap.  These are challenges that it has been able to overcome to a certain degree but I got the impression that the current situation is extremely fragile, economically, administratively and politically.

It also became clear that there is an enormous lack of confidence in the proposals from the borough council and the board of trustees, who are steering the theatre towards a management merger with the Apex, a relatively new arts venue, which is owned and managed by the council and which has generated a loss ever since it was up-and-running,

As events unfolded on Saturday, what began to emerge were definitive statements from the leaders of both organisations clearly wanting to work together strategically, but with strong feelings that they were being forced along a route that they consider to be detrimental to each venue.

Questions were raised over the board's leadership of the process and its transparency and with the final decision being made soon, I don't think Saturday's event will be the end of the debate.

However, whatever happens next, whether a merger is put in place or not, I am worried about the future of the Theatre Royal as well as the Apex.

It's not the on-site day-to-day management of the theatre that concerns me.  The innovation that I've seen under the leadership of the theatre's Chief Executive, Simon Daykin, already demonstrates that as an organisation it has a dedicated talent pool to meet tough times ahead.

Neither are my fears limited to the boardroom issues, council politics or funding challenges.

The threat to the theatre's success that is at the forefront of my mind right now actually comes from somewhere much closer to home.

And that threat comes from people like me!

Yes, little old me, who until now has taken our local theatre and all that it offers for granted.

It was only upon listening to the passionate views of board members, staff and volunteers about how they could increase audiences, that I recognised I was part of the problem.

I couldn't ignore the unpleasant irony that emerged.  While I enthusiastically shared my ideas about how to get more 'bums on seats',  I also confessed that my own attendance, outside of social-media events and the annual pantomime, is actually quite low.

Even though there are always lots of quality productions that I want to see, by the time I get my own act together, I often miss the occasion, forget about it and promise to myself that I'll be better organised next time.

Meanwhile another night sat in front of the TV goes by, another glass of wine, or curry, an evening on Twitter or browsing the web.

So you see, it's not even as if the theatre has any strong competition from the rest of my social life.

It really hasn't.

Neither is my issue one of apathy.

I absolutely love the Theatre Royal and I count myself as a strong supporter.

However, there is nothing like looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of hypocrisy starring back at you.

So it is becoming clear that there is no time more urgent than now to offer greater support to the Theatre Royal and that individual actions really now need to speak louder than words.

What we have in our community is a real asset of local and national significance, which not only provides a place for performance but offers great educational and creative support to our younger generation.  Regardless of what is happening at a higher level, and despite the success of certain productions such as the recent Mansfield Park, the theatre still needs to generate more sales.

I would love to help protect the theatre's future, but like many, as an individual I don't really know what I can do.

Well, perhaps the best place to start is to physically put my money where my mouth is.

Like, actually taking the opportunity to go to the theatre.

More regularly!  Getting out there and enjoying a good dose of comedy and drama.

Now that's a bloody good idea, don't you think?

So, what do you reckon?

Do you want to join me?

I hope so.

For what we take for granted, I fear we could so easily lose.

If you are on Twitter, you can find out more about the issues that were raised at Saturday's event, and join the debate about the future of the Theatre Royal (@theatreroyalbse), using the hashtag #openspacebse.  A report, highlighting all the topics that were explored, can also be obtained directly from the theatre.