We may still be waiting for summer to arrive but in theatre land, thoughts are already turning to autumn and winter.
It is a challenging time for venues as they come to terms with a shifting funding landscape while trying to ensure their programme will meet increasing audience expectations.
The topic is one Simon Daykin, Executive Director of the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds recognises at the launch of the theatre’s new season.
“Our work is vital, in times of hardship the creative spirit shines through and we are committed to producing theatre that punches above its weight.”
The theatre will become an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation from April 2012 but Simon also recognises the huge role that the audiences, friends of the theatre and donors themselves contribute to the theatre funds. It is a income stream the theatre is keen, and indeed must, develop. This year’s season highlights two of the ways that support can help fund the programme, a legacy donation from the family of John and Molly Cheston and perhaps more conventional corporate sponsorship by Marriott Motor Group.
Ian Woodward of Marriott Motor Group is delighted to be in a position to return to sponsorship. “Three and a half years ago we had to leave sponsorship as the recession hit but we are a Bury St Edmunds based company and love giving something back to the town. Long may it continue.”
Artistic director Colin Blumenau is immensely proud of the new season, particularly the focus on Drama. Dick Turpin’s Last Ride is a particular highlight for Colin “I’m fascinated by Dick Turpin, but it’s not what everyone expects it to be, it’s not some jolly romp but a play about the character of Turpin rather than the romanticised nature we are more familiar with.”
The show itself comes with a 10+ age recommendation, in part due to the addressing the darker side of Turpin.
Other highlights for Blumenau includes visits from Shakespeare’s Globe with their touring production of As You Like It and the return of John Godber in a new partnership with the Theatre Royal Wakefield.
There is also the return visit by New Perspectives Theatre Company with their new production looking at the history of flight, Those Magnificent Men and of course no autumn season would be complete without Panto.
The annual pantomime has long been a cornerstone of many venues yearly financial balance sheets and the Theatre Royal is no different. This one production alone brings in around 30% of the annual audience income and there is no reason to suspect this year’s production of Dick Whittington will be any less successful.
A browse through the season brochure shows that there is no major staged Georgian production this season. Partly driven by financial pressures it has also been driven by a move to take a step back to three plays from the theatre’s back catalogue of Georgian plays and the opportunity to delve deeper into the text. The three plays will now be recorded as ‘radio’ plays in front of an audience. While there are still at the moment some issues barring the commercial release of these recordings, the theatre see’s this development as an exciting opportunity to not only bring in new income but also provide a valuable resource for researchers and schools.
Education is perhaps the unsung backbone of the theatre’s work, as Lynn Whitehead, head of Creative Learning explains; “the work we do in Creative Learning is often carried out in publicity silence, away from the season brochure.” It’s a growing area of work for the theatre however, with currently 17 different participatory groups across West Suffolk with members aged 5 to 68.
Audiences will get the opportunity to view three pieces of work from the Creative Learning team this season. In an ambitious project, participants at the theatre’s Summer School will create a new play based on the Apothecary from Romeo and Juliet, rehearsing and staging it to the public in just two weeks.
The youth theatre will bring rims tales to life on stage in October and the Creative learning team have received Heritage Lottery Funding to help the Unitarian’s mark the 300th anniversary of their meeting house.
Although the theatre receives around 90,000 visitors a year, the team are not resting on their laurels and are keen to both encourage new visitors and improve the experience for existing customers. One welcome addition to the services on offer this season is the introduction of captioned, signed performances and touch tours for hearing and visually impaired visitors, enabled through sponsorship from the Cambridge University Press.
Despite the challenging times ahead for all arts venues there’s a positive feeling from the team at the theatre royal. The challenges have encouraged them to look at how they utilise their historic venue and at ways of extending the life of the productions they produce. The Arts Council has made much of partnership working and for the Theatre Royal team partnership is more than the latest buzz word. Colin explains that he is noticing an increase in the number of phone calls and emails from companies wanting to explore new ways of working with the Theatre Royal and that can only be a positive move and something to look forward to in future seasons.
The theatre’s new season goes on sale to Friends of the theatre on 20th June and on general sale on the 27th.