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Hampshire impresarios on what it takes to run a successful regional theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:54 20 November 2018

New Theatre Royal Portsmouth

New Theatre Royal Portsmouth


Running a successful regional theatre means thinking beyond the bricks and mortar to reach out to the community. We ask four of Hampshire’s leading impresarios, how do they ensure that the show goes on?

In a few weeks, theatres countrywide will be packed to the rafters with audiences enjoying this year’s Christmas pantos and family shows. Such festive fare is part of our DNA. And, thank goodness, as it brings a box office boost that allows those at the helm of regional arts organisations to breathe a collective sigh of relief. As behind the glitz and greasepaint, the harsh reality is often a balancing act between the desire to be a creative powerhouse, whilst at the same time fire-fighting against rising costs and cuts to grants; yet such challenges are encouraging a fresh look at their role within the community. And, as a result, a change is currently blowing through many stage doors. 

Portsmouth New Theatre Royal

“There’s a great creative energy bubbling away under the surface,” observes Scott Ramsay, chief executive at Portsmouth’s 650-seater Matcham designed theatre; its growing connection with new audiences mirroring the city’s own reinvention. “We play our part with our artists’ community in the creation of new work, and in the next few years we’ll see more and more of this.

“The Minghella Studio is great as a rehearsal space and we also use it for research and development, as the variety in what appears on stage comes down to what we as an industry support creatively. Coming here, I wanted us to flex our muscles in improving the quality and quantity of work going into this size of venue.”

Admitting that, “it’s difficult to make things happen by yourself”, the partnership with the University of Portsmouth is pivotal; as are joint projects with other city organisations and visitor attractions beyond the confines of the theatre’s walls.

And they’re harnessing digital opportunities too.

“We want to use our website to tell stories,” Scott explains. “There’s a family show I wrote called The Lost Dragon, and having been rewritten it’s now based in Portsmouth. This will be released as a free podcast.”

Scott also points to an innovative commercial collaboration with Amazon’s Audible, who recorded the one-woman show the NTR took to this summer’s Edinburgh Festival.

Nuffield Southampton Theatres

Making waves on the University of Southampton campus since 1982, this year saw the launch of the all-new NST City, in the heart of the Cultural Quarter.

“Now that we’re down in the city too there are lots of added possibilities being close to all the businesses, schools, and to where people live,” says director Sam Hodges.

With the extra benefit of Southampton Solent University also on the doorstep, they’ve got ‘passing trade’ for the very first time. But with greater visibility comes the pressure of being a more public space.

Sam admits: “It’s not though been a case of open the door and people will come. There’s a lot of work to be done.

“What the Nuffield has is the ability to commission and produce the show that opened our new theatre – a play by Howard Brenton called The Shadow Factory, which is about an extraordinary period in Southampton’s past. It was a story that hadn’t previously been told and the whole community got behind it.”

And, he says, there’s been a concerted effort to empower local creatives.

“Our artists’ development programme, Laboratory, works across both our two spaces and across the city. What’s agreed is that for Southampton to flourish culturally, this shouldn’t be totally dependent on publically funded organisations. Instead, it should be a city where artists are making things happen for themselves.”

Anvil Arts, Basingstoke

Multiple performance spaces was an attraction for James Tilston, who took over as chief executive of Anvil Arts six months ago.

“It’s not often that you have the opportunity to work with programmes that include a 1400-seater concert hall, a heritage theatre, and a 100-seater studio space. This,” he says, “provides the chance to work with both experimental artists and big names.”

Being a commuter town, many residents are exposed to the London arts scene. However, James recognises the need to tempt people to visit their home-town venue, whether for an International Concert Series or stand-up comedy act. And, it doesn’t stop there.

“These days, it’s not just about inviting people to come into our buildings, it’s about engaging with them creatively within their own communities.”

Musication Station, one project, saw musical instruments taken into Festival Place shopping centre for visitors to learn to play; the musicians also inspiring local school pupils with learning difficulties and autism.

“As an arts organisation you need to look at how the arts can be used to bring benefits. We partner with a lot of the local schools, which is key to working with younger people, and a lot of the care homes where isolation can be replaced by a feeling of wellbeing. And, we’re working with the council targeting more deprived wards.”

Theatre Royal, Winchester

“Do nothing and your audience slowly dies,” cautions Winchester Live Theatre Trust’s Deryck Newland. So, connecting with people who currently enjoy the annual Hat Fair which is part of WLTT’s programme, but have never stepped foot inside the city’s Edwardian style theatre, is top of the agenda for this receiving house’s chief executive.

“Persuading those loving the outdoor theatre to become ticket buyers was a motivation for me,” says the self-confessed lover of dance, two years into the role. Continuing: “For us, the toughest thing is making the finances stack up when you only have 400 seats and there’s less and less public investment.”

And one alliance that he’s keen to foster is with the University of Winchester.

“Now there’s more of a plan to establish Winchester as a creative learning city. Together we can try to encourage young people, emerging artists and new talent by showcasing their work.

“We also want to transform our café and foyer, if we can get the funding from the Arts Council and the City Council, to make it a more welcoming space for a broader cross-section of the community as performers and as audience members.”

With talk of a small informal cabaret stage, as well as a more interactive social media presence “as a place to share, engage and play”, a re-brand Deryck says is coming soon.


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