THEATRE Putting theatre in its place
On the eve of its annual conference, Theatres Trust’s director Jon Morgan tells AI of its new sense of purpose
The Theatres Trust’s annual conference opening at the Lyric Hammersmith next week will not only introduce its new director, Jon Morgan, but its recast future. The trust, 41 years old this year, is being led in a new direction.
“We have to accept that things move, and needs change. We can’t keep theatres in aspic, we’re not a heritage body” he says, confronting head-on a popular misconception about the trust. Morgan is taking the trust away from the perception that it is no more than a conservation body devoted to preserving playhouses, into the communities that those play- houses serve. So the conference’s theme is “Placemaking”.
Formally, the Theatres Trust is the national advisory body for theatres, and has to be consulted by theatres on the planning system. It was set up by the government in 1976 with no public funding, but it really came
to life when it was the beneficiary of a legacy from the abolished Greater London Council and the London Residuary Body gave it the freeholds of three West End theatres, the Garrick, the Lyceum and the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue.
The trust has a quarterly magazine, a useful reference source for what’s happening to theatre buildings around the country, and it has a database of 4,000 theatres, past and present, with about 1,000 images to with it. Each year it publishes Theatre Buildings at Risk recording those facing demolition or closure.
But times and theatres have changed since 1976. “We don’t want to be unfair to the past” he says, “and it’s not like we haven’t been assertive and strongly argued a case when we thought it important, but we also have to be seen to be balanced. We’re not an organisation that will say ‘Don’t knock down whatever’. We have to be braver in future to say we don’t think you need a theatre there – a tricky thing”.
So the emphasis now is to be on what theatre buildings achieve as well as what they look like. “How they function is much more interesting” he explains. “They are places where people commune together, where they have a common experience, that enables them to see another perspective of life and learn about another culture, for instance. The theatre needs to be a focal point for the community in which it is based”.
Morgan started in January this year, having come from being director of the Federation of Scottish Theatre since 2008. He has also run the Con- tact Theatre in Manchester, and TAG, Glasgow, and the Orchard Theatre at Dartford in Kent.
The trust is taking its role as the mandatory consultant in planning processes more seriously, and al- though it has no statutory power its advice is having an increasingly heavy influence. Whereas the organisation might have been little more than a wit- ness to the planning process, nodding through decisions and taking note, now it is an active participant. “We are getting heavily involved when theatres want to upgrade or improve their buildings” Morgan says. “Our job is to help theatres through the process”. The trust has on offer expert architectural, planning and theatre practice advice. Morgan has recently advised against a theatre’s development plan as being inappropriate to the community it is in, and he is con dent that advice will be taken. “We have to help people through those changes, and where there’s controversy we try to steer a sensible course to make a theatre more feasible, more viable moving forward” he says. There are about 200 theatre planning applications a year for the trust to be consulted on.
Stopping theatres from being knocked down was very much the founding mission, but the trust’s primary purpose now is not to preserve but to make sure there are theatres, whatever their aesthetic qualities, to present live performance.
The theatre stock has changed dramatically since 1976, and now there is a whole raft of 60s and 70s theatres that are as old as some Edwardian theatres were when the trust was founded. The Roderick Ham designed Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead, Surrey, had suffered critically from a degradation of its concrete, and the trust has helped the management ad- dress it with a grant.
It witnessed the advent of the National Lottery which made a whole- sale change, with new theatres being built on lottery funding, but too many of them budgeted only for capital development, not for maintenance or revenue, so that several faced closure within months because of basic holes in their business plans. “That was a vital lesson to learn and act on quickly” he says.
The trust is also advising on the de- sign of Manchester’s new £110m The Factory “talking through plans, what works, what might be better – we have to make sure that any development has a long life, that the operator doesn’t discover after six months that that bit doesn’t work”. There are high pro le consultations in the West End too, including the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, the Arts Theatre and in Islington the King’s Head pub theatre.
Five years ago the trust began three small grant schemes. There have been 71 grants so far in UK Theatres Small Grants, London Small Theatres and the Wolfson Foundation/Theatres Trust Urgent Repairs Scheme.
The Acorn in Penzance got £5,000 to make the building safer for its users, with handrails being raised, floors repaired and emergency lighting replaced. There was £15,000 for the old Royal Court in Bacup, an 1893 gem of a theatre whose electrical works were in urgent need of upgrading. In Lon- don, Theatre Peckham has acquired a new home in a housing development, but it needed a fitting out that the developers had not provided.
Theatres now are day-long operations. One of the conference speakers, Graham Lister, comes from Chester’s new £37m Storyhouse which was a complete rethink after the closure ten years ago of the city’s Gateway Theatre. At first entry it is a library with a large café at its heart, but its 800-seat theatre, studio and “boutique” cinema, are soon revealed as part of the “desire line”, the architectural term for drawing the public into a building they might not enter instinctively.
“There was an Arts Council survey some years ago that said that people valued having a theatre in their town even if they didn’t go” Morgan says. “Now they are going to their community theatres thanks to their increasingly imaginative managements, and we have to help the theatres be sure that they are providing what all their visitors want.”
The Theatres Trust conference is at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, on October 17. www.theatrestrust.org.uk