Small theatres in East London face big difficulties staying afloat
- Credit: submitted
As London Mayor Boris Johnson looks at what government can do to help small theatres survive, we go behind the scenes and talk to the people behind the bright lights.
Focusing mainly on theatres with fewer than 300 seats, The London Assembly last week launched an investigation into the difficulties faced by such venues in the current economic climate.
Venues such as Theatre Royal Stratford with 460 seats fall outside that bracket so we went further down the backstreets of Newham and Tower Hamlets.
Assembly member Tom Copley, leading the investigation, said: “London has a world-renowned theatre scene, ranging from large West End stages to small venues above pubs, all of which contribute enormously to the capital’s economy and culture.
“However, smaller venues are reporting a range of difficulties including funding cuts, uncertainties over their tenancies, structural issues with their premises and difficulties promoting their work.
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“Small venues – which are essential for fostering new talent and productions – are a major economic driver and growth sector for London.”
So Mr Copley wants to hear from small theatres about the challenges they face and how government can help.
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So we decided we would help him along by speaking to the people behind the scenes.
The People Show: “We paid heavy price for Olympics.”
As the curtain closes on a small theatre venue its general manager hits out at the government for redirecting arts funding to pay for the Olympics.
David Duchin was last week packing away costumes and props used by the People Show at their auditorium seating 80 people, as the experimental theatre group prepares to take their shows around the world instead.
They will now leave their venue in Pollard Row, Bethnal Green and instead work out of a small office at the Brady Centre in Stepney.
Ever since the group lost its £120,000 yearly grant from the Arts Council in 2007 its business has been declining.
Mr Duchin said: “We were one of 200 organisations who lost their grant from the Arts Council when the government redirected the money to pay for the London Olympics. We had to make our producer redundant so no new shows were developed and every year our building has been used more for rehearsals instead.
“All the money we make goes on bills and maintaining the building, and we have had to dip into our reserves. In the end we had to make a decision that it’s more important to move the show and going back to being more experimental again.”
The Arts Council is one of the government’s arm’s length bodies deciding which projects receive National Lottery funding.
Bethnal Green Working Man’s Club: Funding gap proves hard to bridge
Tucked away off the beaten track, the man behind a small private fringe theatre says it is hard to compete with council-funded venues.
Warren Dent, producer and creative director at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, says they are having to work harder and put in extra hours to try and survive while venues such as Rich Mix are “propped up” by the council.
The venue in Pollard Street has a auditorium seating 150 people and rooms used for rehearsals and events.
Mr Dent said: “What makes it harder is that some venues such as Rich Mix are propped up by Tower Hamlets Council. It means we’re in competition with a venue which gets many more chances to survive even if not many people are coming to its shows.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any funding. But maybe something should be done to ensure there is more of a balance.”
He would like to see a reduction in business rates and help with funding to maintain and improve the theatre’s Edwardian and Victorian building.
The venue used to put on cabaret and burlesque shows, but has now moved more towards performance art such as dance and interactive plays.
Mr Dent said: “We try to let young people rehearse here to give them a platform in performance art.
“We’re also a sort of home from home for many older people using it as a social space.”
Mr Dent explains that they make the majority of their money at the bar.
He said: “There are probably still as many people coming but they are coming in later in the evening and not spending as much at the bar.
“We used to have a lot of local companies holding Christmas parties here which would make up for it being a slow time of year, but companies are cutting back on such events.
“We are having to do more different and interesting shows and events to compensate. But because we try and do something new it can be quite empty. We’re not business-orientated. But many of our shows have gone on to show at bigger venues such as the Barbican.”
A spokeswoman for Tower Hamlets Council said: “Rich Mix was developed with substantial financial investment from the Arts Council, Millennium Fund and London Development Agency.
“We made a contribution to the capital project, including an £850,000 loan. Arrangements are in place to endeavour to secure repayment of the loan.”
Brick Lane Music Hall: Change of location proved to be a real lifesaver
A traditional music hall which moved from the Truman Brewery in Spitalfields to an old Silvertown Church is now playing to full houses.
Director of Brick Lane Music Hall, Vincent Hayes, who was presented with an MBE by Prince Charles last week for his services to British music halls, puts it down to Newham Council being more supportive than Tower Hamlets Town Hall.
Rents rocketed and parking was impossible in Tower Hamlets, he said. So in 2003 he renovated the empty St Mark’s Church in North Woolwich Road, which was on the ‘endangered buildings’ register, and moved in with his diet of musical comedy, song, food and drink.
Half of his audiences at the venue, which has 200 seats, come on coach trips from all around the country while the other half come from Newham, including elderly homes and schools.
But Mr Hayes is not taking anything for granted.
He said: “We are taking bookings for spring of next year and every show is full.
“But we always have to be on our mettle. I’ve never known good times and it has always been a case of the show must go on.
“We do a lot of market research and send out a lot of literature.
“Newham Council are very supportive and help promote us on their website. In Tower Hamlets we had residents petition against us and accusing us of being into drugs and prostitution, which is not what we are about at all. Here we can be more indulgent about what we put on.”
But Mr Hayes does not see why taxpayers should fund what he enjoys doing.
He said: “The Olympics wiped us out for more than two months as no coaches were allowed down here and we had to close.
“We have a lot of overhead costs but we just have to keep going. I pay my £9,000 corporation tax unlike some big companies, but I would like some VAT and corporation tax relief.”
Half Moon Young People’s Theatre: School partnerships draws in audience
A theatre aimed at younger audiences is staying afloat by developing partnerships with schools and being more creative with its shows.
Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in White Horse Road, Stepney, sees children from Newham and Tower Hamlets taking part in its workshops, and Saturday shows in its 90-seat auditorium often sell out.
The theatre gets an annual grant of £215,000 from the Arts Council, which makes up 41 per cent of its annual turnover of £450,000 – all of which is re-invested into the theatre.
Tower Hamlets grants represent eight per cent of its turnover, while the other 51 per cent comes through fundraising and earned income, such as ticket sales and workshops.
But theatre director Chris Elwell explains that they have still had to be more entrepreneurial in what they offer in the current climate.
Mr Elwell said: “We fit into the criteria the Arts Council is looking for because of our work with local schools, youth clubs and nurseries.
“But we have still had to develop more partnerships and be more pragmatic with what we offer to fit into the criteria our partners are looking for. As arts has been disappearing from schools’ national curriculum we put on theatre workshops dealing with issues such as traffic safety to fit in with other parts of the curriculum.”
They also run workshops offering employment skills in how to run a theatre. The theatre building, built in 1864, also received a grant of nearly £1million to help restore and improve its building.
Mr Elwell said: “It’s fantastic and it helps draw the community in and make the young people coming here feel that their work is valued.”