Swimming Pool v Theatre for Exeter

I’ve been challenged by a resident on my views on Swimming  Pool v Theatre.

And I can only guess that by theatre, they mean a large city centre theatre to rival the Plymouth Theatre Royal, as Exeter DOES have both theatre venues and theatre companies, offering a wide range of exciting theatre and other entertainment – quite often serving up productions not seen this side of Bristol.

Exeter Corn Exchange (Capacity = 500)

*Exeter Northcott (Capacity = 460)

Barnfield Theatre (Capacity = 287)

*Exeter Phoenix (Capacity = Seated 216; Standing 450)

Cygnet Theatre (Capacity = 100)

*Bike Shed Theatre (Capacity = 80)

And in addition, there are theatre companies that produce their own work, and tour nationally and internationally:
*Theatre Alibi 

Le Navet Bete

And of course there is a relatively new an organisation based in Exeter which brings people together to design, promote and produce extraordinary live experiences.

Each of the organisations marked with an * is recognised by Art Council England to be of such benefit to overall arts offer  of the area and the UK that they are designated as a National Portfolio Organisation [NPO] as they play a vital role in helping ACE meet its mission of great art and culture for everyone. Each NPO receives a commitment of 3 year funding for their activities

As a professional theatre sound designer, I would love to be able to deliver a 1200 seater theatre capable of presenting large scale touring shows – but  such a theatre is likely to cost somewhere in excess of £47m to build and the city council would have to pay around £350k each year to a commercial operation to run the venue.

I can say this with some confidence as that’s what happens at the most recent civic theatre to be built in the UK – the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury.

Just to be clear, I am not dismissing such a proposal out of hand – what I cannot support is a theatre that requires significant subsidy to operation. If a private enterprise came forward, I am sure that a compromise could be found. But there are no such propositions coming forward – either here in Exeter, or elsewhere around the country.

However, there is a case for a for a multi-purpose entertainment venue, which will need to be at least revenue neutral, if not income generating.

I am currently hopeful that the Theatre for Exeter Development Group will soon be commissioning an options appraisal  to  examine the feasibility of just such a venue as I know Cllr Rosie Denham, as the Portfolio Holder covering arts and culture, has helped them develop the brief for a consultant.

Although no site in the city centre has been identified, there are some obvious options that could become available in the next 5 years.

As to the Leisure Complex – there is a robust business case that shows that the facility will be generating a significant income for the city council at a time when national government is reducing central funding to local authorities and expecting them to be financially self-sufficient by the time the Revenue Support Grant is removed from councils by 2020/21.

Thus, the Leisure Complex will in time allow us to continue to work for the good of the city and its residents,  and – if a the options appraisal can give a viable case for a cost neutral/income generating venue – help finance that venue in the future.

I hope that helps clarify my position.

Steve Knightley’s call for a city-centre theatre for Exeter

A video by Steve Knightley made at Nottingham Playhouse has re-opened the debate a city-centre theatre for Exeter.

Posted on his Facebook page, the Show of Hands folk singer used the video to criticise Exeter City Council’s decision to build a swimming pool and lesuire centre rather than a ‘proper theatre’ on the bus and coach station site.

Early on in his video Steve says:
“One of the only county town I can think of that doesn’t have a proper theatre”.

I would dispute that observation – Exeter DOES have its own theatre – the Exeter Northcott – albeit not at the heart of the city centre.

And I would like to place some of Steve’s comments in context.

I’ve been lucky to have earned a living in the theatre profession since 1978.

I’ve been a passionate advocate of live theatre – and if I thought that I could offer a viable 1200 auditorium on the bus and coach station site, I would be fighting wholeheartedly for one rather than a leisure complex.

And it ‘s not the cost of building it – my estimated cost of £47m (see earlier blogs) could be afforded.

It’s the revenue running costs that stymie the plans.

The most recently opened similar venue (the Waterside in Aylesbury) costs the local authority around £350k a year to run.

Yes, COSTS  Aylesbury Vale District Council.

Even if full every night of the year, the local authority would see no additional financial benefit any profit would go to the commercial operator – ATG.

And what does £350k mean to Exeter City Council – that’s the same amount was we spend tackling homelessness (and not just rough sleeping) across the city each year.

And what about the specific theatre mentioned by Steve – the Nottingham Playhouse.

During the 1980’s I worked at the Leicester Haymarket (and a further 15 years living there before relocating to Exeter in 2004), just a 30-minute train ride away from Nottingham so I know the Playhouse well.

The 750-seater auditorium as opened in 1963, around the time Mr G.V Northcott was negotiating with the Board of Directors of the old Exeter Theatre  Royal in Longbrook Street.

History tells us that these negotiations were unsuccessful and as a consequent we are left with the legacy of the “theatre up on the hill” – the 480-seater Exeter Northcott.

For many years, both the Nottingham Playhouse and the Northcott Theatre were run and funded on a similar basis – a regional theatre with a resident production company presenting productions on a 3- or 4-weekly cycle.

Both were supported by the Arts Council of England [ACE], and received subsidies from local authorities.

Over those years, the funding models changed. And there were the various problems at the Northcott (especially in 2005 and 2010) resulting in a restructuring and a rethink on how the funding operates. Throughout these periods Exeter City Council have continued to fund the Nothcott, while ACE has considerably reduced the subsidy to the theatre.

Conversely, during the same period Nottingham Playhouse has seen its ACE subsidy rise – to around £1.2 per year, that’s around the same figure Plymouth Theatre Royal receives.

The Express & Echo reported the recent visit of ACE’s Chief Executive, Darren Henley [Arts Council England boss visits Exeter to celebrate its ‘magnetic pull for arts and culture’, 21 October 2015].

Darren was accompanied by Phil Gibbey, Area Director for ACE, South West. Both made encouraging noises about the success of arts and culture in Exeter – but they were less enthusiastic about any plans for a theatre to rival Plymouth Theatre Royal.

And let’s be clear – the Nottingham Playhouse for all that £1.2m per year subsidy from ACE DOES NOT have a programme similar to that  in Plymouth. NO Lion King, NO major musicals, NO An Inspector Calls. NO No.1 touring productions.

And why is that? Because Nottingham – at three times the size of Exeter, and a much more populous catchment area – also has the Theatre Royal, a 1200-seat venue that has been there since 1865.

If we still had the Theatre Royal in Longbrook Street, I think Exeter would be seeing a similar offering to that being presented at the  Nottingham venue.

But we don’t. So we can’t.

Exeter has been left with the legacy of Mr Northcott’s failure to secure a city centre theatre back in 1962.

Back to Steve’s belief that Exeter most be one of the only county towns that doesn’t have its proper theatre.

Not far from Notitngham is Derby. It’s a 14 mile drive from Nottingham to Derby.  Also 30 minutes on the train from Leicester, I often visited the venue during my 25 years in Leicester.

Back in the 1980s, Derby had its own city centre producing venue – the 535-seat Derby Playhouse, which opened in 1975 and ran until it went into administration in 2008 (note that year!).  The venue is now used by the University of Derby, who use it as a professional and learning theatre.

But what Derby did have in the city centre was the Assembly Rooms – a 1200 seater auditorium but the venue was never capable of taking the No.1 touring productions that visit the Plymouth Theatre Royal.

Instead it was more akin to Exeter’s Corn Exchange – albeit it somewhat larger – in programming events.

You might notice I use the term “was” – the building was badly damaged following a blaze in an adjacent car park and the private sector is being asked to come up with plans for new large-scale “performance and entertainment venue” for the city.

With many of the leases for shops on South Street coming to end in 2020, perhaps the Theatre for Exeter Development Group could look to work with various partners – including the private sector – to develop plans for a new performance venue on or around the site of the current Corn Exchange?
Maybe with the income from the new Leisure Complex,  ECC could afford to be part of that vision?

#Theatre4Exeter | The Boat Shed – a new theatre for the Quay

Screen shot 2015-07-11 at 09.13.37

The article Boat Shed: Plans for £4m theatre and nightspot at Exeter Quay [E&E, 09 July 2015] unveils the ambitious plans to turn derelict MacLaines Warehouses at Exeter Quay into a £4m creative space, which will include a new theatre, live music hall, cafe/bar, bakery and indoor market.

Firstly, I must declare an interest. I am a member of the Board of the Bike Shed Theatre – a position I hold as much because I’m a theatre practitioner (in my free time I am a freelance theatre sound designer) as well as being an ECC councillor.

Secondly, I do NOT see this an alternative to any plans to come forward from the Theatre For Exeter Development Group for a theatre in the city centre.

Thirdly, the business plan takes into consideration the financial reality of the current political climate – and seeks to maximise earned income rather than expecting government subsidy. That said, there is the hope of securing investment from three main funders: Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and Arts Council England. We’ll also expect to raise smaller amounts from trusts and foundations, local businesses and generous individuals.

McLaine's Warehouse in 1870
MacLaine’s Warehouse in 1870

David Lockwood, Director of The Bike Shed Theatre explains the plans…

Two years ago, I was shown around the empty warehouses that used to house the Maritime Museum down on Exeter’s quay. The intention had been to find a site for the Bike Shed to move in the Summer months when people don’t want to be down in a cellar so much. Two things immediately became apparent:

  • it would take a huge amount of time, effort and money to get these spaces open for a pop-up Summer retreat;
  • if you were willing to spend the time, effort and money, you’d be able to create something phenomenal and unique for the city.

Since then, we’ve been dreaming about what we could do with the building and for the last nine months we’ve been working with some brilliant people. including the leading international theatre architects Haworth Tompkins, to present a feasibility study to the owners of the building, Exeter Canal and Quay Trust. On the 6th July, we presented our plans.

Our intention is that the building will include:

  • a 250-seat flexible theatre;
  • a smaller double-height space for comedy and live music;
  • a cafe, bar and bakery;
  • an indoor market for local craft, design, food and drink;
  • co-working space and studios for creative companies;
  • rehearsal rooms;
  • space for outreach and education work.

We want to create a space that is more than just a theatre. In fact, more than just a traditional arts space. We’re keen to have a sense of openness between the performance spaces, creative working areas and social parts of the building. Our aim is that the new space – provisionally called The Boat Shed – will be accessible to all, a creative and social part of civic life for all curious enough to want to pay a visit.


So where now? We’ve kindly been given two years by Exeter Canal and Quay Trust to start raising the funds needed to convert the space. Whilst we’re doing this, we’re keen to show people around the building and are inviting ideas from the public. We’ll update you regularly with news of our progress and opportunities to come and view the space.

Normally at the start of a capital project, you’d be asked for money. But at this stage we’d rather have your ideas. So if there’s anything you’d like to see in the space – however boring or outrageous – please get in touch. I’m on davidlockwood@bikeshedtheatre.co.uk. I look forward to hearing from you.

Read more about the plans for The Boat Shed as an engine room of creativity planned for Exeter’s historic Quayside.





David, and all at the Bike Shed

David Lockwood
David Lockwood

#Theatre4Exeter | Opera for Exeter?

As I was writing my previous letter, I received another letter about the ‘iconic’ building – this time lamenting the fact that Ellen Kent Productions were not able to present any of their 3 touring opera productions in Exeter.

This is my response:

I’ve just picked up your follow up letter, and was reminded of one of your recent questions “why can’t Exeter have better productions?”

I see that you’ve attached details of three operas being toured by Ellen Kent Productions.

I’ve always heard some scathing comments about this particular company on my travels, so I did a little research

The “impassioned and sultry” description from The Observer was from a production back in 2001 – it is worth reading the full review by Fiona Maddocks to get her full comments, but here are some other selected quotes

It’s Moldova – don’t expect La Scala
The east Europeans who criss-cross the country with classics are competent, not innovative

The clipped quote was in full was “The impassioned and sultry Carmen was a Ukrainian”

Ms Maddocks also said “The stagings were woefully staid but not without spectacle. Musically they were secure and professional with some notably good singers. The orchestra, though thin in string sound – no surprise on poor quality instruments – played more than competently.”

So you have to wonder why a quote from 2001 is needed, when Ellen Kent has produced at least 2 other version of Carmen in recent years.

Have things improved since 2001? Not if this  2 star review of Madama Butterfly  by Rupert Christiansen published in the Daily Telegraph in 2012 is to be believed

Madama Butterfly, Ukrainian National Opera, Touring
This touring production is hardly the last word in finesse but its simple approach may suit some tastes

“The formula remains constant: there is no call for novelty or experiment: familiar repertory in ‘traditional’ stagings is delivered by robust Slavic voices, with no nonsense about interpretation. The schedule works the musicians like Trojans, on terms which no British union would tolerate: the result is an air of exhausted routine, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend these productions to anyone of exigent or sophisticated tastes. But for the casual or occasional operagoer they deliver a basic package which may provide an evening of uncomplicated pleasure.”

“The biggest disappointment of the evening, however, was the dreadful orchestral playing, under the baton of a conductor Gheorghe Stanciu who evinced no love or understanding of this wonderful score. Cramped into a horrid little pit and driven by his jogtrot tempi, the emaciated band sounded half-dead, with quavering brass and desperately stringy strings.”

So much for the full orchestra! Ms Maddocks also comments on the string sound 10 years earlier.

And Mr Christiensen mentions the musicians being cramped into a horrid little pit – I’m not familiar with Eastbourne’s (I assume) Congress Theatre but I have knowledge of others venues  on the touring  list, and I would suggest that many too could be described as having similar cramped pits and questionable acoustics for opera.

Once again, these are my personal views.

#Theatre4Exeter | An ‘iconic’ building on site of Bus Station

I have been in long-term correspondence over the Exeter City Council’s ‘iconic’ building on the site of the Bus and Coach Station…here’s the latest instalment.

I hope that these discussion help you realise that the decision over the future direction of the Bus & Coach Station development site is much more considered than many people realise.

If you have been following the story closely, you will know that the option to develop the site was awarded to Land Securities and Crown Estate back 2010.

Under the deal,  Land Securities would  draw up proposals for the site  and would be granted a long- term lease by the Council, which  would still own the freehold.

The developer would then pay  for the redevelopment of the site  and lease units to retailers.  Land Securities will now draw  up a feasibility plan and the Council will have the final say  on any proposals.

SEE: Land Securities seal Exeter bus station deal (WMN, 17 March 2014)

Of course this was under the previous LD administration when Leader Adrian Fullam had a letter in the E&E City centre theatre idea is unrealistic (15 March 2010).

Most of his comments then are still valid now.

As a consequence of the recent article in the E&E (“New bus station site plans are due within weeks” 13 June 2015), you highlight 4 points

1) The plans are expected to include a multi-screen cinema
As Adrian pointed out back in 2010, Land Securities are “Land Securities is a commercial company”. The same is true of their successors on the project, TIAA Henderson Real Estate.

They are now responsible for regenerating the current Bus & Coach Station site – they are investing £70m in the project – of course, they will be expecting to make a  substantial return.

The terms of their option gives them full control (subject to the usual planning restrictions) to make best use of that land as they see fit.

As to whether a multiplex is finally delivered on the emerging site is simply a matter of economics.

Each and every one of the 3 multi-screen cinemas operates on a commercial basis – if not, they would close down.

I am assuming that TH Real Estate and Crown Estate have had the relevant conversations with a cinema chain and/or independent and reckon they can get a financial return on delivering a new cinema on this site.

2) It is understood that a new swimming pool is needed to replace the Pyramids.
To be clear the leisure complex is going to much more than a swimming pool, it will have gym and other facilities – more details from Exeter Active, and you see outline details of the building design on Gale and Snowden’s Swim4Exeter page.

Initial design drawing [Gale and Snowden]
Initial design drawing [Gale and Snowden]

As it stands, the research and business case shows that the new leisure complex will NOT be an Olympic-sized pool. I’ve tried swimming in Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh and it really is daunting.

I am really exciting that this ‘iconic’ building can be built to PassivHaus standards.

I for one would be seriously worried if the new leisure centre were located at one of the suggested alternatives – Arena Park. Many bus route have been threatened by withdrawal of services and I fear that this situation will only get worse in the future.

I want a facility that is easily accessible to all – not just those that can rely on private car use.

I haven’t got the actual usage details of Riverside to hand, but a report to Scrutiny – Economy in January 2014 reported an INCREASE of 44,000 customers at Riverside Leisure Centre in comparison to year one, and a significant rise at the Pyramids Swimming Centre with an increase of 29,000.

I haven’t seen the documents that outline the projected use of the new complex of 500k to 1m (New Exeter swimming pool will ‘attract a million visitors a year’, council claims E&E 19 March 2015), but let’s remember we are talking about visits to the gym and other facilities as well as swimmers.

And to put that in to some perspective – if Theatre Royal Plymouth were open to provide 9 performance a week, there would be an audience of some 1500 (in the 2 venues) per performance, that’s 13,000 each week and totaling 702,000.

But I would once more reiterate that each visitor to Exeter’s Leisure Complex would bring in an income to the Council.

Currently, TRP is a National Portfolio Organisation [NPO] of Arts Council England [ACE] and receives funding to the tune of £1,185,500 – this is committed for the next 3 years. Note I use the phrase committed, rather than guaranteed, as ACE have have stated this could be reviewed if they themselves receive cuts in Government funding.

For your information, the following Exeter-based Theatre Companies receive annual NPO funding from ACE:
Bikeshed – £75k
Northcott – 125k
Alibi – £241k
Kaleider – £110k
and Exeter Phoenix is an NPO for Combined Arts – £125k

As I’ve mentioned in previous correspondence, I think that a new theatre venture in Exeter would be very unlikely to attract such significant funding from ACE.

In addition to susbisdy from ACE,  TRP currently enjoys revenue grant support of £665,000 from Plymouth City Council. The freehold of the Theatre Royal Plymouth (built in 1982) is owned by PCC and let to the operator at a peppercorn rent.

The reality is that a new theatre would cost residents for each and every seat sold.

As a city cllr, I am committed to retaining as much of the current green open space as possible, and any building on the site of Belmont Park would reduce the capacity available for events such as Exeter Respect.

The amphitheatre is an open space within the new development that I would imagine would be used for ad hoc events and informal gatherings (even a new location for the Farmers’ Market?) – rather in the way that Coventry’s Millenium Square is used – rather than for formal money-making initiatives.

3) No reference is made to building a much-needed theatre
I think that in my previous thoughts I have taken issue with this view – the theatre is desired but there is no NEED.

I will admit that’s my view – but with over 5 years of active doorstep work within Cowick, I can honestly say the issue of city centre theatre has been raised with me ONCE. I can take you to the resident, it was so memorable.

I see constant letters from the same people regularly appearing in the E&E expressing their desire, I understand the economic benefits if a city centre theatre, I want “the arts and culture an economic driver of the growth of the city”.

It’s just my view of theatre differs from yours. That’s why I do back the desire of the Theatre For Exeter Development Group to carry out a full feasibility study for the project.  What I’m not prepared to so is fully fund that study – and I believe the T4E Development Group aren’t expecting the City Council to do so.

I would be willing to place a bet – that the feasibility study would find that the financial case for a 1200 seat theatre capable to presenting Number One tours (those seen at TRP) will not stack up.

And I’m willing to place a second one – that a 800-900 seater theatre would be financially viable.

What do I do then?

Ignore the study and plump for the unsustainable venue you want, or the one that we can afford and support?

At the meeting of Exeter Civic Society where the T4E Development Group came into being, there were many who mourned the loss of the resident Artistic Director and repertory nature of the programme at the Northcott.

I have high hopes that the appointment of Paul Jepson up on the hill will start to address these issues – and I feel that his plans will be much more than “developing local production in co-operation with Exeter University”.

You also make mention of parking at the University – there is NO shortage of car parking spaces, albeit a couple of minutes walk away from the theatre. There is also a useful bus service that runs the city centre (and to my home in Heavitree). It is certainly much more accessible to the city centre than Warwick Arts Centre is to Coventy.

The future of the current Pyramids site is still to be decided – I personally would like this to be a major music venue like the Academy chain seen around the country – but I fear I, too, will be disappointed!

You bring back the 1962 closure of the old Theatre Royal – there has been a replacement for this – the Northcott. That was the legacy I inherited when I joined the council in 2011 – I wish different decisions had been taken back then, but they weren’t. We have to progress from where we are now,

Funding cannot be redirected from the ‘unnecessary” cinema no funding from ECC is  being directed there – as I explained earlier, that’s a commercial decision for TH Real Estates and Crown Estates.

The “unnecessary” amphitheatre is something I desire, and have fought hard to retain in the plans – once again there is NO ECC funding for this

Can I refer you to the Bus and Coach Station Development Principles from June 2012 which outlines desires for this sort of  space to be delivered.

4) The City Council must be aware that the small shops are steadily closing in the city
Yet I see thriving independent shops along Paris Street – The Real Food Store (declaration of interest, I’m a minor shareholder), Jelly, The Sandwich Shop, the gift shop (UPDATE: Hyde & Seek!) – and I for one want to see this independent network retained and grown once the new development comes to fruition.

As I say, I’ve given it a lot of thought, as have many of my colleagues.

I’m sure we’ll correspond more once the planning application for TH Real Estates and Crown Estates is lodged with ECC.

#Theatre4Exeter – My thoughts on the Rose Theatre in Kingston

Following the publication by the Express & Echo of my letter on how I saw the financial viability of a 1200-seater city centre theatre, I have been amazed by how many compliments I’ve received. But others have questioned my views and suggested alternatives.

One such was asking why that city centre theatre couldn’t emulate the Rose Theatre in Kingston – a conversation of an Odeon Cinema – and one of the options mentioned by the Theatre for Exeter Development Group.

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

The overwhelming majority of voices I’m hearing is for a competitor to Plymouth’s Theatre Royal – with an auditorium seating in excess of 1200 and presenting the touring productions of musicals and theatre that constitute the programme in their Lyric Theatre. There are other models – costing considerably less, but I believe not meeting the *demands* of those currently calling for this large city centre theatre.

The Rose in Kingston is an interesting model – 900’capcity circular auditorium inspired by the shape of an Elizabethan theatre, but by no means looking backwards.

The thrust stage juts out into the auditorium, giving a new perspective to the relationship between performer and audience member. This alone would rule out the major shows the majority of correspondents in the E&E are calling for.

But it does reflect the kind of theatre I would like to see.

So to the construction costs – yes only £11m!

However, we don’t own the Odeon, so someone would have to find the money to buy it in the first instance. And that’s if the Odeon would consider selling someone the building.

It’s worth noting that the 2012/2013 annual accounts of the Kingston Theatre Trust (which manages the Rose) show the venue made a loss of more than £200k – this despite continued funding of £500k from Kingston Council and a further £380k from Kingston University.

However, I will acknowledge that there may be other models of financing and funding that might work – that’s why I need to see a viable business case.

If I were to play devil’s advocate (and second guess the final report), it is probable that the conclusion of Theatre For Exeter Development Group will be that a 1200-seat theatre is economically unviable, and it will recommend a venue with a capacity 750 – 1000. Will this placate those calling for a rival to the Plymouth Theatre Royal – NO.

Could I back this with an accompanying 10 year action plan as proposed by the T4E development Group – a qualified YES I was (and have been all through this debate) careful not to say NEVER to a city centre theatre. With an ailing and failing Pyramids, we need a swimming pool (actually, it’s really a leisure complex!) NOW.

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?

Never say never about a #Theatre4Exeter

I hope that no-one thought in my earlier blog, A new Theatre4Exeter MUST be financially viable, I was entirely dismissing the vision of delivering a city-centre theatre in the future.

The fact and figures where present to highlight why I feel that we cannot deliver it NOW.

Much of the discourse in the E&E and elsewhere seems to suggest that ECC cllrs have not even considered whether a theatre is viable now.

Trust me when I say I’ve led a delegation of key cllrs and senior officers to see Plymouth Theatre Royal (and their associated workshops, wardrobe and rehearsal space, TR2 – costing them close on £10m alone) and had informal chats with ACE.

Just like the general public at large, there are Individual factions of cllrs in favour, indifferent and totally against the idea of a new theatre. I would hazard a guess that some would like to see ECC follow Devon’s lead and cut all “arts for arts sake funding”.

Here in Exeter we (you) are lucky – there are 3 arts professionals within the ruling Exeter  Labour Group – and I know I’ll be doing my best to endure that Exeter continues to fund arts and culture.

We are only one of 3 local authorities in the country that currently spend 50p per week per resident

(this is the focus of the National Campaign for the Arts current campaign – 50p for culture: http://www.50pforculture.org)

Much is this is because of the amount that we spend on RAMM, but we still invest significant sums of money in a wide range of theatre provision. Looking at shifting this funding to a new theatre building would threaten Exeter’s current vibrant theatre ecology.

I am aware of the work of the Theatre For Exeter Development Group, as I was there at the original debate at Belmont Chapel organised by the Exeter Civic Group.

I welcome the action plan , and am looking forward to the thoughts of their theatre consultation on what they think might may be viable in the city.

If the report from their consultant can show a viable business case for a city-centre,  I am sure a suitable site could be found.

What I am less confident about is whether the City Council could (or even should) deliver the theatre.

The current report doesn’t seem to be wedded to this form of delivery – there is mention of local fundraising, trust funds, etc.

And the report doesn’t even know what sort of model would be used to run the theatre once it’s been built.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a second?  Especially if that business case might show some surprises.

When we started out on the journey towards a swimming pool, I thought that it would be a 50m competition pool or nothing. The business  case now shows that a 25m pool is needed in the SW – short-course competitions, water polo and many other activities are much more viable than a full 50m one.

What would be the view of the  Theatre For Exeter Development Group if the consultant could show a business case for city-centre theatre seating 750-1000, rather than the 1200 one to rival Plymouth Theatre (which seems to be the focus of the calls I’m hearing)?

I think I have to stop there and wait to see what the consultant’s report proposes.

Let me be clear, I have never said NEVER! I am a creative person and have managed to create magic out of nothing myself. Let’s see if we can do that it Exeter, even if it does take a decade.

So in theory if a viable business plan for a city-centre theatre (of whatever size) can be drawn up, I would be willing to consider it as part of the longer term strategy for the development of the city centre.

A new #Theatre4Exeter MUST be financially viable

Wordle from "A new theatre for Exeter"
Wordle from “A new theatre for Exeter” report

Over recent weeks there has been a great deal of debate, primarily with the Readers’ Letters pages of the Express & Echo but also elsewhere. However,to my surprise, it is rarely mentioned when I’m talking to Cowick residents of #LabourDoorstep.

While I respect the views of the correspondents, I take issue with them when they say that Exeter City Council hasn’t even considered the possibility

Indeed there is one such letter in this week’s Express & Echofrom Jackie McKee [ READER’S LETTER | “Growing  Exeter needs  venue”, 08 Jan 2015] who says:

“This was the latest in a continuing series of such remarks made by Cllr Edwards who seems intrinsically and irrationally opposed to a new theatre for the city.”

This in turn was making a reference to comments made the previous week by Jack Passmore [READER’S LETTER | “Bus station site is ideal for theatre”, 01 Jan 2015]

“Their argument seems to be based on the financial viability of having a theatre, and not the facility that the capital city desperately needs in its centre for everyone to use”

Some residents have contacted me about this issue. Here is my response:

Many thanks for your (not so) recent comments on the siting of the swimming pool on the site of the Bus & Coach Station site.

It is an issue I have long considered since moving to Exeter in 2004 – whether it be converting the old Debenhams building or building one on the site of the Bus & Coach Station redevelopment.

I have written letters to the E&E, tweeted about the subject as @CllrPaul4Cowick and blogged about it – many of these thoughts can be found HERE.

I have been following the conversations on the calls for a new theatre on the Bus & Coach Station site since they were first raised in Express & Echo by Steve Bloomfield nearly 2 years ago [‘Turn bus station site into new theatre‘, Express & Echo,  08 March 2012]

I have decided to enter the debate at this stage following the comments made by Jack Passmore on the letters page of last week’s edition – and in particular,  ‘their argument seems to be based on the financial viability of a theatre.’

As a city councillor, I am elected to consider such things; I have to consider the financial viability of a capital expenditure on such a major project. As an elected member to Exeter City Council I have to look at the facts.

Other correspondents have talked about having a large theatre slap bang in the centre of the city if I understand them correctly nothing short of a theatre with a capacity over 1200 plus to rival Plymouth’s Theatre Royal would satisfy their wishes?

So let’s explore the financial viability of those desires, shall we?

I’m not sure if people know, but I am theatre practitioner – a freelance theatre sound designer that works across the country and internationally.

During 2012/13, I toured the UK with Stephen Daldry’s award winning production of An Inspector Calls on a Number 1 tour playing venues in the main seating 1000+

In the main, these were traditional theatres, often built by the great Frank Matchum in late 1800s. However, we did visit some more recent examples.

Indeed, one in particular struck me as most interesting – the Waterside at Aylesbury. A striking building with a seated capacity of 1200 (and retractable seating to give a standing capacity of 1800). And it was built in the last few years, opening in the autumn of 2010. I could see something like that in the middle of Exeer

So I did some research…

The venue cost in the region of £47m to build

Compare this with the cost of the swimming pool. The business case we have worked up shows that £20m capital expenditure will be spent on this new asset, funded by a combination of New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy, capital receipts from land sales and borrowing.

If this was spent on a new theatre rather than replaced an ailing swimming pool, the amounts of NHB, CIL and capital receipts would be similar. So any difference would have to be made up entirely from borrowing – £27m of ADDITIONAL borrowing.

There is a Theatre For Exeter Development Group that has looked at the background to building a new theatre in the city centre, and they released a report in February 2014.

In their report, the T4E Group outline where they think the money might come from (this is definitely NOT a business case). The report points to private investment,  local fundraising, national lottery support and subsidy form Arts Council England covering some of the costs of the new theatre – but admits that a shortfall “would leave a  commitment by Exeter City Council and other local government partners” of between 40% and 60% of the overall cost.

But I reiterate, these figure are guesstimates of what neighbouring local authorities and Devon County Council might contribute, No one has asked them as yet.

It is my belief that DCC, East Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Councils already have enough calls on their rapidly diminishing budgets – and would be unlikely to answer calls to fund a new theatre in Exeter. But who knows?  Perhaps something might arise – Phoenix-like – out of the recently announced Memorandum of Understanding on Greater Exeter Visioning Partnership?

So where else might funding for the new venue come from?

Mr Passmore’s recent letter suggests that the City Council could raise money by selling the Northcott Theatre to the University. There is a fatal flaw in this suggestion – the University already owns the theatre.

Informal discussions with Arts Council England [ACE] hint that there would be little or no money from them for a new theatre in Exeter.

So without the magical appearance of a modern-day Mr Northcott coming forward to fund the new theatre, I cannot see how it could be built.

And believe it or not, raising the capital for the project tis probably the easy part! There is then the issue of funding of the running costs to be considered.

From April 2015, ACE is ploughing significant funds into the Northcott, Theatre Alibi and Bike Shed Theatre (as well as other arts and cultural bodies within the city, including RAMM) under the 3-year National Portfolio Organisation scheme. Because of this, I am certain there would be no likelihood of significant ACE funding coming forward to subsidise any of the running costs of the new operation.

Going back to the Waterside in Aylesbury, there the local council pays a commercial organisation (ATG – Ambassadors. Theatre Group) some £25,000 PER MONTH to run the venue on their behalf. This is a one-way transaction – ATG get any profit with nothing being returned to Aylesbury Vale District Council by ATG.

So why would AVDC chose to go down this route? Probably because their previous civic theatre was losing them more than £740k a year when it closed.

I talked earlier about borrowing for the capital costs – there is no chance of borrowing to cover revenue costs. So ECC would need to find the money from revenue sources.

The City Council already invests heavily in the arts and cultural sector within Exeter, with no spare funds to invest in the significant running costs of such a building.

Could DCC, EDDC and TDC contribute? Nothing to stop them  in the past, they used to help fund the Northcott. But they no longer do.

Each of these local authorities have cut their arts and culture funding in times of relatively prosperity, so it doesn’t bode well in these austere times.

Back in April 2014, National Campaign for the Arts analysed local authority spending on arts, museums and heritage as part of 50p for Culture. It found that Exeter is one of only 3 local authorities spending more than 50p per person per week in arts, museums and heritage (the other 2 are City of London and Middlesborough).

For comparison, Plymouth spends 19p, East Devon 03p, Teignbridge 02p and Devon County Council only 01p per person per week.

And at their Full Council meeting in early December, DCC announced that from 2016, they would be cutting entirely any funding of “arts for arts sake”.

As a theatre practitioner I wish it weren’t so, but as a city councillor I have to take heed of the financial viability of such a project. As it stands at the moment, I cannot see a way to make the figures stack up.

I know that the T4E Development Group are currently in the process of engaging a theatre consultant to look at making a viable business case – and from that develop an action plan for a new theatre to cove the next decade. To that end, I wish them well.

Many people seem to think the option for a new city centre theatre is the Bus Station site or nothing.

I think that the New Theatre for Exeter Group are more open-minded about the siting of a new building and I believe that there may other options in the city centre that might come forward.

So it is a mistake to represent the discussion on the swimming pool and theatre as if one prevents the other – they are only mutually exclusive on the Bus & Coach Station redevelopment site.

If someone can make a viable business case and come up with a funding package, I am sure a suitable site (other than the Bus and Coach) might become available

So why a swimming pool over a theatre – there is a demonstrable NEED for the form to set again an understandable DESIRE for the latter.

The Pyramids is an ailing –and rapidly deteriorating – facility that is well past its original lifespan – I’ve seen reports from 2001 suggesting that a replacement was urgently required). It often has operational problems – at times costing large funds to put right. It will take tender loving care to keep it limping on to 2018.

That’s why I have supported Exeter City Council in building the business case for a new swimming pool and leisure complex now.

And that’s why I have been proud to support the inclusion of a new swimming pool for the city in the manifesto commitments made by Exeter Labour Party in successive local elections.

It’s not that I don’t see the benefits that a new theatre could bring to the city centre, but I really can’t support the call for a new theatre without a financially viable case being made.

#Theatre4Exeter – what I (and others) have said in the past

04/04/2008 | Homes, not theatre

Back in 2008, there were calls to turn the old Debenham’s building into a theatre – these are my comments on that proposal and were published in Express & Echo on 08/04/2008

08/03/2012 | E&E – Turn bus station site into new theatre

ARTS lover Steve Bloomfield has launched a campaign for a major concert venue to be built in Exeter.

08/04/2012 | #Theatre4Exeter

I know I was touring with An Inspector Calls (in Newcastle on the day in question) but I can’t remember what @LonWon asked that prompted this stream of consciousness!

21/06/2012 | Exeter’s burning theatre dreams

Prompted by 3 letters on the subject in Express & Echo. @LonWon has written this blog

22/09/12 | #Theatre4Exeter – UPDATE

Discussion on Twitter with @CafeAt36 and others prompted by an exhibition about the history of the Theatre Royal held in The Guildhall

24/09/2012 | Theatre Envy

My initial thoughts on the accusations that Exeter is a cultural desert

24/09/2012 | #TheatreEnvy

There are often calls, in the local press and media as well as in discusions elsewhere, that what Exeter needs is a large commercial theatre to rival Plymouth’s Theatre Royal – my view on those calls.

04/10/2012 | #Theatre4Exeter in city ‘would not work’

I had hoped that this letter would be published in Express and Echo

04/10/2012 | #Theatre4Exeter in city ‘would not work’

Comments made in my letter above formed the basis of this article in Express and Echo

23/11/2012 | Exeter Civic Society: A new theatre for Exeter – a public discussion

Exeter Civic Society invited me to a Public Meeting on 6 December to enable the public to debate the possibility of a new town centre theatre.

ECS published a summary of the discussions and also summarised a survey  of who attended the meeting on a feedback form

Following on from this public meeting, a working group was formed (first meeting on 16/01/2013) and this has now evolved into Theatre fro Exeter Development Group

14/04/2014 | 50p for Culture

Exeter is one of only 3 local authorities spending more than 50p per person per week in arts, museums and heritage (the other 2 are City of London and Middlesborough).

For comparison, here’s what Plymouth City Council, Torbay, Devon County Council and neighbouring district authorities spend per person per week in arts, museums and heritage:

Plymouth UA                    0.19

Torbay UA                        0.14

Devon County Council   0.01

East Devon DC                0.03

Exeter City Council         0.53

Mid Devon DC                 0.01

North Devon DC              0.17

South Hams DC               0.01

Teignbridge DC               0.02

Torridge DC                      0.09

Mid Devon DC                  0.03

14/04/2014 | #Theatre4Exeter debate at @BikeShedTheatre

In February 2014, the Theatre 4 Exeter Development Group published a report, The Case for a new theatre for Exeter and the Heart of Devon, which was launched at a public meeting at the Bike Shed Theatre. Here are my thoughts from the tech box.

05/10/2014 | #Exeter is 7th most cultural city in the #UK

Analysis by our in-house data team at Manchester Evening News, ´Exeter  came seventh out of the 50 cities analysed, ahead of other cities like Manchester (9th) and Bristol (10th).