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Theatres at Risk 2011 – the impact of times of austerity and public services reform

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Mhora Samuel

Theatres Trust Director

As The Theatres Trust’s 2011 Theatre Buildings at Risk Register is published today, Mhora Samuel, Director of independent advisory body The Theatres Trust explains what it aims to achieve, the current challenges facing theatre buildings and how local communities are helping to save their theatres.

This is the fifth year we’ve produced an At Risk Register to highlight theatres under threat from lack of maintenance, neglect, redevelopment or demolition. As well as including theatres that are important from an architectural and historic perspective, the Trust’s register also focuses on theatrical quality (the theatre’s reputation as a ‘playing space’, its ambience, acoustics and sightlines) and uniqueness – considering its place in the theatre ecology and the geographical need for theatre spaces of different types to ensure reasonable access to a range of theatre and entertainment experiences.
The Brighton Astoria, which is due to be demolishedIf their future was more secure, many of the theatres on the Trust’s register could be making a positive contribution to community and economic development and providing people with the chance to enjoy the arts in these times of austerity.
As stated in our 1976 Act of Parliament, the Trust’s role is to promote the better protection of theatres for the benefit of the nation. This includes being a resource for theatres, raising awareness of their value, promoting good quality sustainable design and theatres’ heritage, offering guidance to those undertaking capital projects, and providing advice to local authorities on local plans, planning applications and pre-applications as a statutory consultee.
Through our annually-published Theatre Buildings at Risk Register, we aim to highlight those theatres that are in danger of being lost to the nations and what is needed to secure their future. This year there are 58 buildings on the register, with twenty theatres having been added and eighteen theatres removed from 2010’s list. I’m pleased that many of those that have achieved happy endings have benefited from our help.
This year, the register highlights the impact of austerity measures over the last 12 months when many local authorities, public bodies and private owners reviewed the funding and ownership of their theatres and reduced the levels of funds available for revenue operation and capital restoration, refurbishment and maintenance.
As a result, we’ve seen many more campaigns mounted to save theatres under threat. While there has been fantastic energy and goodwill behind these campaigns, all have faced huge challenges in establishing governance structures, negotiating positions, or raising the money to buy or refurbish the theatres and keep them from being demolished, sold or closed. The Grade II* listed theatres, Wiltons in London and the Morecambe Winter Gardens, have both been unsuccessful in raising funds this year and remain in our list of top theatres at risk in England. The Brighton Astoria and Cochrane Theatre in London are both due to be demolished and their land redeveloped. Sadly many of the new theatres on the list are there because they are under threat of closure, up for sale, on sites proposed for redevelopment or under threat of demolition.
The new additions include the Bournemouth Pier Theatre, RAF Brampton Theatre, Isle of Wight Ryde Theatre (Grade II), the Paul Robeson Theatre in London, Plymouth Athenaeum, Liverpool Forum (Grade II), Regent Theatre in Loughborough, Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall (Grade II), St. Peter’s Theatre in Southsea, Stockbridge Theatre in Edinburgh (Category B), Conwy Civic Hall (Grade II), Theatr Harlech, Parc Hall in Treorchy, De Valence Pavilion in Tenby, Albert Hall Theatre in Llandrindod Wells (Grade II), St Donats Arts Centre near Llantwit Major and the Corwen Pavilion. Many are not listed buildings but have an important place in their local communities.
Inside the Morecambe Winter Gardens, which is on the At Risk RegisterBut we’ve also taken eighteen theatres off the 2010 TBAR because their future is more certain as a result of community-based, local authority, educational and commercial developers’ positive actions. They include the Gardner Arts Centre/Attenborough Centre for the Contemporary Arts, Brighton (Grade II*), Crewe Lyceum (Grade II), Shanklin Theatre (Grade II), Neptune Theatre, Liverpool (Grade II), Hackney Empire (Grade II*), Arts Theatre, London, Westminster Theatre, Marina Theatre, Lowestoft, Acorn Arts Centre, Penzance, Victoria Theatre, Salford (Grade II), Stockton Globe (Grade II), Taunton Gaumont (Grade II), Theatr Elli, Llanelli (Grade II), and the Patti Theatre, Craig-y-Nos (Grade I).
Unfortunately, there have been some total casualties. Despite eleventh-hour efforts by local campaigners, some theatres have been lost to demolition or destroyed by fire after being left derelict for years. These include the Borough Theatre Wallsend, the Garrison Theatre in Alsager, the Ayr Civic Theatre and the Glasgow Coliseum.
Looking to the future, we are hopeful that new Lottery-funded programmes will provide an opportunity for community-based organisations and campaign groups to attract the funds they need to protect and rescue their theatres.
But securing a theatre and then running it successfully requires specialist expertise, especially if the building needs work and money spent on it, or if its future is predicated on the lead organisation having the capacity to become part of a wider development or regeneration initiative. Many of the community-based groups and private sector providers that Government anticipates will come forward as a result of public service and planning reforms will not just need capital investment; financial help and support will also be needed to build capacity and develop viable plans if they are to become responsible guardians of these theatres at risk. The Theatres Trust will continue to play its part.

The Theatre Buildings at Risk register can be searched online at www.theatrestrust.org.uk. More information is provided about each theatre or you can search the Trust’s online Theatres Database, which includes around 2,000 existing theatre buildings.
Brighton Astoria image ©Ian Grundy. Morecambe Winter Gardens image ©The Theatres Trust Image Library

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