Architecture Adviser for Theatres Trust Claire Appleby talks about supporting Theatres at Risk

Claire Appleby

“Theatres are one of the few buildings left in communities where people can come together whatever their age, ethnicity or class”. A sentiment shared by many within the theatre community and expressed by Architecture Adviser of the Theatres Trust, Claire Appleby. Founded in 1976, the Theatres Trust have worked to ensure that current and future generations have access to good quality theatres where they can be inspired by, and enjoy, live performance. We champion the future of live performance, by protecting and supporting excellent theatre buildings which meet the needs of their communities’. For the past 12 years, the charity have also looked to support theatres they deem to be ‘at risk’ – these theatres featuring on their ‘Theatres at Risk Register’. This year’s list has been announced and Claire discusses what it takes to supporting and protect these valuable buildings.

As Architecture Adviser at Theatres Trust, you manage the trust’s ‘Theatres at Risk work’. This consists of compiling a register annually to raise awareness on a national scale on theatres that could face closure or demolition. What is the process in terms of forming the list?

Throughout the year at the Theatres Trust we give advice to theatre owners, operators and local authorities to ensure theatres old and new are viable, sustainable and serving their local communities. We also run several grant schemes for theatre capital projects. This means that we tend to have a good knowledge of any theatres that might be struggling or of buildings that need major work. We also have good links with heritage organisations and other campaigning groups, who, along with members of the public, will make us aware of any buildings that might be considered at risk.

We publish the Theatres at Risk Register in January each year, so a couple of months before that I start to analyse the theatres that have been on our watch list to see if they meet our criteria to be included on the register. We don’t include every theatre that might be in difficulty or any building that was once a theatre – each one is rigorously assessed to ensure the building is of merit and it could have a realistic future as a performance venue. We also look at the theatres that are already on the list to see if anything has changed over the course of the year, which may impact it being included on the list. For example, this year we removed Alexandra Palace Theatre as its renovation project was finished and it has now opened to the public whilst at the opposite end of the scale, the Coronet in the Elephant and Castle has been removed as it is to be demolished after planning permission was granted for redevelopment of both the theatre and the adjacent shopping centre..

Each theatre on the Theatres at Risk register is given a total score (in terms of risk, star rating and community value). Can you explain the process for determining this?

We assess the theatres based on a combination of three criteria – Community Value, Star Rating and Risk Factor, each scored out of three. Community Value looks at how much local support and demand there is for the theatre to be retained or returned to performance use, for example, whether there is an active friends group campaigning for the venue, what other venues are operating in the local area and whether there is a realistic and viable option for the theatre to be returned to live performance use. Star Rating judges the building’s architectural quality both in terms of its heritage and how well it can function as a theatre. The last category is Risk Factor; theatres can be at risk for a variety of reasons, including loss of funding, lack of maintenance, threat of sale / changes to ownership, effects of neighbouring development. A minimum score of four with at least one point in each category is needed for a theatre to be included on the list.

To give you a couple of examples of how this works in practice. Brighton Hippodrome scores the maximum of nine points – that doesn’t mean it is necessarily more at risk than some others, but that it is a real gem with great potential. It is the finest surviving example of a circus theatre, converted from an ice rink by renowned architect Frank Matcham and could offer a space for large-scale theatre productions that Brighton currently lacks. Theatr Ardudwy, a new addition to the list, scores seven points – three for community value as there is no other theatre in the immediate vicinity, two for star rating for being the first post-war theatre listed in Wales and a fine example of Brutalist architecture and two for the risk, as it has closed and is up for sale, but not under immediate threat of redevelopment.

A list of 31 theatres were recently announced as ‘being at risk’. Each having strong architectural merit and cultural heritage, and the potential of being returned to live performance use, hence the potential of no longer being on the list. How can this be achieved?

We believe that each theatre on the list has the potential to be returned to live performance use. How can this be achieved? In short – time, money and a lot of hard work!

Where theatres have been empty for a substantial period of time, there is rarely a quick fix solution – these are long-term projects that require patience, innovation and boundless amounts of enthusiasm to bring back to life. Any group ororganisation looking to secure the future of a theatre at risk needs the backing of a solid business plan to indicate that their ambitions have long term viability and which may reveal that compromises have to be made.

During fundraising and renovation of the main auditorium, many theatres have used a small space to re-establish the venue in the community and start to generate income. For example, Spilsby Theatre is programming in its lounge area and Leith Theatre is programming events within its smaller Thomas Morton Hall and holding pop-up events in its main auditorium while fundraising continues to fully restore it. From late spring this year, King’s Theatre Kirkcaldy will be hosting events in an adjoining former YWCA building while restoration works continue in the theatre.

Most of the theatres on the list will require substantial investment to secure their futures – but they do all have the potential to recoup that money and make a significant difference to their communities. Bradford Odeon is using a mix of grant funding and public loan funding for its £20m restoration project. Once it has reopened it has been forecast to provide a £10.4m per year boost to the local economy through providing jobs, training, volunteering opportunities.

Partnership working is vital – local authorities, heritage organisations, theatre owners and operators and campaign groups need to work together to find the right solution for their building and community. Burnley Empire was recently purchased by the friends group that had been campaigning to save the building, but this was only possible due to them working in partnership with ourselves, the National Trust and historic theatre consultancy TheatreSearch and with the good will of Burnley Borough Council.

How do you support theatres that are at risk?

Although the Theatres Trust is a small charity, we are able to provide a wide range of expertise to theatres at risk, covering architecture, heritage, planning and business development and we maintain close contact with Theatres at Risk. For example, we supported Alexandra Palace by offering early stage advice on the theatre’s viability study, provided advice at planning,and supported its fundraising campaign with letters of support to funders. Redevelopment plans for the site of The Century Theatre had put it at risk due to threat of neighbouring development but through a consultation process with Theatres Trust the theatre has been more fully integrated into proposals which gives it improved future protection.

We provide advice to campaign groups to help them to protect their theatre, for example we advised the Friends of Streatham Hill Theatre on having the theatre listed as an Asset of Community Value, which will give the building increased protection against redevelopment. We’ve just published a quick guide on our website for campaign groups entering the first stages of their projects and we provide advice and support on early stage processes such as fundraising and organisational set up. We are also fundraising to launch a capacity building programme to enable us to provide more in-depth support for key areas of early stage advice.

We also act as brokers between the different parties involved in Theatres at Risk, including bringing together owners with potential professional theatre operators and connecting campaign groups with others in similar positions, or brokering meetings between campaign groups and their local authorities.

We advise local authorities on how they can help their local theatre at risk. Local authority budgets have been squeezed in recent years but support doesn’t have to mean ongoing revenue funding. It could be recognising culture in local plans, undertaking viability studies or taking steps to ensure the building doesn’t deteriorate further. Again we’ve put together some advice for councils about this on our website but we are always happy to talk through individual cases.

And of course, by publishing the Theatres at Risk Register we are helping to raise the profile of the theatres included, at a national and a local level. Local people with an interest in theatre or heritage have been brought together to form campaign groups as a result of seeing press coverage about the Theatres at Risk Register – this was the case with the Burnley Empire.

Once theatres are announced annually, organisations as well as the public are invited to support and potentially stop these buildings being at risk. How can they support?

Check out the list and see if there are any in your local area. Many of the theatres on the list will have a friends or campaign group so you might want to get involved with that – this could be by providing a particular expertise, just being an extra pair of hands at community events, signing a petition or making a donation. If you run a local business, consider offering in-kind support to the theatre or campaign group.

As well as disused buildings, the list includes working theatres with capital / operational issues and venues currently partially open or open for special events but where significant restoration work or fundraising still needs to be done. So please take every opportunity to see a show, go on a tour or have a coffee in the café at these venues.

Or if you don’t have a link with a specific theatre, but want to support theatres in risk in general, you could support our work at the Theatres Trust – we offer a range of Friends, Patrons and Corporate Supporters packages for individuals and organisations who share our ambition to protect theatres.

Even if you just share information about the Theatres at Risk on social media, you are helping spread the word.

How crucial are theatre buildings to local communities?

Obviously we think they are absolutely vital! These days there are fewer spaces in communities where people can come together – but theatres fulfil this role. Theatres are one of the few buildings left in communities where people can come together whatever their age, ethnicity or class. This is not just about somewhere to have a good night out (although there is nothing wrong in that!) Theatres can be central to placemaking, giving communities a real sense of cohesion and belonging, adding to the night time economy and helping create vibrant and vital town and city centres.  

Culture-led regeneration is a sound proposition and a theatre building can provide the centrepiece that attracts visitors to a place and encourages residents to spend their money locally. Stockton Council, a major funder in the restoration project for former Theatre at Risk Stockton Globe, has estimated that the reopened 3,000-capacity entertainment venue has the potential to attract up to 170,000 visitors per year, and the London Borough of Waltham Forest which announced its intentions to purchase Walthamstow Granada earlier this year has carried out research which shows that the theatre could play a key role in the revival of the local area, estimating that once renovated the venue could add between £34m and £52m to the local economy over a ten year period.

The Theatres Trust recognise that in order to prevent more theatres becoming at risk, that arts funders and policy makers need to ‘make a commitment to sustained investment in capital projects’. How do you believe that potential funders could be encouraged to do so?

We carried out research last year, in association with UK Theatre and Society of London Theatres, that showed that an estimated £1bn is needed for theatre capital projects over the next five years and 30% of theatres that responded would be at risk of closure if they were unable to carry out the capital projects. We’ve been using this information in our conversations with arts funders and policymakers – coupled with powerful case studies of the difference theatres can make to their local communities and highlighting success stories of past Theatres at Risk that have been restored and have reopened.

Since the register’s launch, 44% of the 175 theatres on the list are now operating as live performance venues, showcasing just how vital this register is. Although each case is unique, were there particular factors that helped those theatres operate again?

Behind each successfully restored or revived Theatre at Risk, there will be a story of collaboration – with the local authority, theatre owner (which may or may not be the council) and passionate, dedicated local residents working together towards a shared vision.

The building owner needs to be sympathetic to the cause. For any progress to be made, the owner needs to understand the significance of the building’s heritage and what needs to be preserved for performance use. They also need to work with any potential theatre operator, agreeing realistic terms that will allow the venue to flourish. Having the right operator on-board is also crucial – a team that understands how to run and programme a venue so it becomes viable is essential.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

To find out more about the Theatres at Risk Register, visit here…

To find out more about the work that Theatres Trust do, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop