This is one of the questions being asked at The Theatres Trust’s annual conference, Community Theatres on the 28 April, taking place at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds – a venue which has been serving its local community since 1865.
It’s a very important question as new Community Rights give people more of a say on running their local communities, and engagement by and with those communities is essential if theatres are to remain at the heart of local communities.
Increasingly local groups are also becoming providers of theatres and spaces for theatre in their localities, towns and villages. For example, in 2013 the Taunton Theatre Association was formed through two local groups working together to take on the running of the Brewhouse in Taunton, which they have successfully reopened. They are not alone. Community based groups are taking on responsibility for buildings to ensure that they continue to have access to a local theatre. At the conference we will hear the story of the Community Asset Transfer of the Civic Hall in Stourport-on-Severn to the Civic Group.
The Communities Minister, Stephen Williams has been championing the take up of Community Rights and, in particular, the Community Right to Bid, which encourages local groups to put forward important land and buildings as Assets of Community Value. I’m delighted that he will be our Keynote Speaker on the day.
We will also be hearing from community theatres and arts centres involved in capital projects and through these are securing the future of their local theatres. Deborah Bestwick, the Director of the Ovalhouse will be talking about its plans to move to a new building in Brixton, leaving behind the arts centre at the Oval, but bringing its community with them on the journey.
In answering the question, what makes a community theatre, I hope we have the chance to explore some of the social and community values all theatres share. For me, a community theatre has both theatre and a social purpose at its core. And it has to be cared for and loved by its community.
Across the UK local people give their time and energy to ensure the success of their local theatres – whether as audiences, actors, champions, volunteers, hirers, fundraisers, donors, organisers, staff, committee members, owners, philanthropists, theatre builders and restorers, the list could go on.
Today, the future of many community theatres relies on even more engagement from local communities as public authorities review their financial and ownership commitments to their theatres. Local authorities remain key players as they focus on delivering growth strategies and many see the value of theatres as major contributors to their growth agendas. They are also helping communities to create Neighbourhood Plans (another of the Community Rights) and helping communities to access funds to deliver neighbourhood priorities through the Community Infrastructure Levy.
The words of the eminent philosopher Sir Ernest Barker resonate. In 1942 he said, ‘the cultivation of the arts is not only a matter for artists; it is also a matter for the whole community, which has to build for itself a house of beauty in which communal life can be happily and finely spent’, adding ‘each community should take care of its own cultural well-being’.
These words carry through to today. The importance of cultural well-being is now recognised in our planning system and through the Localism Act 2011 new Community Rights help communities to determine their priorities and decide how they would like to see their towns and cities develop. We have to ensure that theatres are fully engaged.
I’m looking forward to the debate, ideas, actions and recommendations that will enable theatres to develop their relationships with their communities and I hope that through this year’s conference we will come to a deeper understanding of the shared values held by those who are running, championing and building our community theatres.
The Theatres Trust Conference 14: Community Theatres takes place at City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds on 28 April 2014. Read more about the work of The Theatres Trust.