Is it possible to have *better* theatre without a new #Theatre4Exeter?

Since entering into the debate over a new #Theatre4Exeter, I have been asked if we could have better theatre in our existing venues, including the Northcott.

Citizens are asking it is  simply because of capacity, as  It would seem more sensible to try to improve provision in an existing venue than to begin the monumental task of raising money for a brand new one.

As a theatre practitioner,  here’s my considered response:

My earlier blogs were written to challenge the notion that ECC cllrs hadn’t even considered the possibility of a new theatre for the Bus & Coach Station redevelopment site. As outlined in those response, I and others certainly have.

It’s good to get beyond the rather stilted debate of “why worry about the financial viability, we have to a city centre theatre because we are the city city of Devon and better than Plymouth” and instead move onto “why do we want (need) a new city centre theatre”.

I’m not one for the politics of envy, and certainly don’t subscribe to theatre envy.

I grew up in Plymouth – in the time when their only theatres were the late lamented Athenaeum and the tin shed that was described as the Hoe Theatre.

The first professional theatre production I saw was a modern dress touring production of “Julius Caesar” at the Athenaeum, produced by the Northcott. It started pop icon Brian Protheroe (still remember “Pinball”) in the lead – and making his first appearance on stage, Robert Lindsay was spear -carrier extraordinaire.

I saw the production as it was the set text for my English Literature O Levels.

But that was theatre/drama to me back in the early 1970s…school classrooms and passing exams.

That changed when I went to Salford/Manchester in the early days of the Royal Exchange – and why I now work in theatre.

Back then I remember standing on the top of the Plymouth Civic Centre and peering down into the pit that would become the foundations of the nascent Plymouth Theatre Royal.

So back to the question. Why can we have better theatre? I would counter that with another question – what is better theatre?

Let me try and explore this – It is something I have thought long and hard about.

Plymouth is big enough to put on Number 1 tours – those big dramas and musicals.

The stage is big enough for the largest productions and the technical facilities are in place to support these shows.

Around the back there is space to load/unload 3 40′ articulated trailers at the same time. This isn’t a requirement for a Number 1 show – but it certainly makes the venue attractive.

But the main selling point is the capacity – 1500 seats makes the budgets economically viable, but still they have to charge in excess of £50 for the larger shows.

Many shows originate at TRP because of a £8m facility pm they have in the city – TR2 situated in the Cattewater in a glorious setting. It is here that they build sets, not only for shows that appear on the TRP stage but elsewhere. When I last visited TR2 (with ECC cllrs and officers) they were building a set that was going directly to Russia.

Similar they have props workshops and costume makers based in a great wardrobe based at TR2.

But most importantly, TR2 hosts rehearsal spaces – not only big enough to rehearse those musicals that appear on the major stages, but large enough to do so with a full band. No more draughty halls were I rehearsed Me and My Girl before it’s run at Leicester Haymarket before it transferred to London, and cast and band only coming together in the final days on rehearsal on stage.

When a production is booked to play at a theatre there is normally an exclusion clause, preventing the show being presented at any nearby theatre. The radius for this exclusion is normally 50 miles – so I was surprised to se both “Birdsong” and “The Mousetrap” to appear on the bills of both TRP and Exeter Northcott.

The reason for this exclusion is to protect producers profits and ensure an audience at a theatre.

For TRP, their business plan covers a reach of Lands End to Taunton and beyond. For many similar theatres, they would find many times a similar reach within 30min drive or so. The reason is obvious, much of Devon is rural – and to the best of my knowledge sheep don’t much enjoy the theatre. And half the radius takes in The Channel – a similar observation says fish also avoid the theatre.

A new 1200+ theatre in Exeter would often be excluded from the shows that appear at TRP for over a year, and both venues would be reaching out for a similar target audience.

So back in March 2012, when Steve Bloomfield first suggested a theatre on this site and Cllr Pete Edwards suggested that it would not be good for either venue. In truth, Cllr Edwards wasn’t too far wide of the mark.

And TRP would have the better hand – already in receipt of major subsidy from ACE and building many of the shows that appear on their own main stage, The Lyric.

The above assumes that bigger = better.

The Northcott, with a capacity just shy of 500 attracts small- and middle-scale tours and is funded by ACE to do just that.

There are the obvious limitations of stage size, technical facilities and audience size. But there are other factors in play – the University limits movement of HGVs on the Streatham Campus making it difficult to stage productions that need more than 1x 40′ articulated truck.

But the Northcott DID host the first performances of the relaunch Rambert Dance Company (now touring to No 1 venues) in 1994 – I know, I was touring with them then.

But there ARE advantages – the Northcott stages some of the best medium scale productions around.  Indeed, if they weren’t seen at the Northcott, they wouldn’t be seen in the SW Peninsula this side of Bristol.

In my touring days with Shobana Jeyasingh we never performed beyond Taunton – now with the demise of the Brewhouse as a professional venue, SJDC are now regular visitors to Exeter.

I maintain that Headlong and ETT are among the best theatre producers around, and in the past I have travelled considerable distances to see the work of Footsbarn. Each of these are now regular vsitors to Exeter.

So at the Northcott, they are trying to present the best of the productions that are around – in my view, each season gets stronger, and the last and current seasons have had artistic input from Board Member, Paul Jepson who is a theatre director in his own right.

Once again I say bigger doesn’t equal better.

I am a veteran of many productions at the original Bush Theatre – 80 seats above a pub in Shepherds Bush.

I was sound designer on the first-ever production of Jonathan Harvey’s “Beautiful Thing” that premiered there in 1993.  It went on to do a middle-scale tour, was booked into the Donmar and from there transferred into the West End – before being made into a film.

The cast list over all those versions I worked on was a casting agents dream – Mark Lethern, Jonny Lee M inlet, Philip Glenister, Diane Parish, Rhys Ifans, and Hugh Bonneville.

Memories form this production far out way those from 10 years at Leicester Haymarket where I worked on major musicals and many productions that transferred to the West End. The best experiences for me during my decade normally happened in the 120-seat Studio Theatre.

I see a similar vibrancy and potential to emulate the success of the Bush right here in Exeter in the form of the Bike Shed Theatre (but I will declare an interest, I am on the Board of Trustees!).

One of the best theatrical shows I have seen since moving to Exeter since 2004 was “A Conversation” staged as part of the 2014 Ignite Festival – simple but effective staging packing a powerful punch with engaging performance from Nigel Barrett.

So no, to me bigger isn’t the same as better.

My visits to see theatre in Plymouth normally end in the Drum, not the Lyric.

When I talk to theatre practitioners in Plymouth they are envious of the vital and vibrant theatre ecology and community found in Exeter – they feel excluded from the workings of the TRO, although that is beginning to change with the introduction of an new experimental space.

One last thought.

When I was that the Leicester Haymarket in the 1980s it was one of the top 5 theatres in England. We were producing musicals and plays that were transferring directly into the West End, we were working with the bright and the best, I was collaborating with the crime of UK’s directors and major fringe touring companies, yet it wasn’t enough.

My (rare) nights off were spent on busman’s holidays – I would travel to see theatre in Derby, Nottingham, Northampton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Coventry and more to see shows.

So perhaps the answer is, whatever theatre we do have, we always want more! And better?
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