Alnwick Playhouse, The Maltings Theatre and Arts Centre in Berwick, and Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham stand as welcoming and dynamic focal points important to the cultural life of the diverse communities they serve. SUSAN BURKE meets the artistic directors of all three theatres to find out about the scope of activities each has to offer.
WHEN appointed chief executive and artistic director of Berwick’s Maltings Theatre and Cinema in 2008, Dr Miles Gregory immediately set about transforming the building’s interior. A Bohemian atmosphere now pervades the comfortable bar area, while the theatre’s stylish café offers patrons views over Berwick’s red pantiled rooftops.
Said Miles: “The Maltings is now recognised as one of the leading small theatres in the country, offering outstanding entertainment. We’re able to attract big names such as Julian Clary, Rich Hall and The National Theatre of Scotland.
“Our theatre is at the heart of the community: it’s where we gather to laugh, to cry, to escape one world and see another, to meet new friends, to learn, and to experience the transformative magic of the arts. We are a thriving theatre.”
“We mount 780 events each year, of which some 450 relate to film or theatre. We bring 200 different film titles to The Maltings annually, setting us on the way to becoming the North East’s premier independent cinema. There is something on in the main house almost every night of the year.”
Miles stressed the fact that The Maltings is fully involved with the local community throughout the year. Schools often take part in performances and county council sponsored events, while youngsters of all ages participate in workshops and in the children’s choir. In 2009 The Maltings was the first theatre to offer complimentary tickets to members of the armed forces, for which it was thanked by the Berwick-based King’s Own Scottish Borderers for its thoughtful gesture.
“One size doesn’t fit all: that’s what’s so wonderful about independent theatres,” said Miles Gregory. “Not only do amateur performers and artists showcase their talents at the theatre, we’re fortunate to have hundreds of Friends of The Maltings. Over the last financial year 35 volunteer ushers and stewards worked almost 6,000 hours – that’s equivalent to £22,000 worth of time.”
What developments are planned in 2011? Dr Gregory hopes to secure a “very large funding bid” which would enable the venue to develop its Henry Travis Studio. A fully equipped ‘black box’ type of theatre, this would include retractable seating and a digital cinema. Creating space for the local community to use and experience theatre, the proposed 120-seat studio would, Miles indicated, allow a 30 per cent increase in programming.
Music lovers can expect to benefit from a scheme to create a 50-seat basement venue for the use of local and visiting performers.
The Maltings’ artistic director mentioned that the theatre intended to step up its work with the community: “We want to encourage groups and individuals to become theatre producers themselves,” he said. “We currently work with five local theatrical companies as co-producers and would like to extend this. It could be said that we want to be the gardener who encourages the smaller plants beneath the tree to grow rather than focusing on the big oak.”
As a measure of the interest in live performance shown by a considerable number of Berwick’s citizens, a derelict building known as the Penny Lodging House is now being planned to be converted into a theatre by the management team.
February 14 to 16 will see the National Theatre of Scotland return to Berwick, this year offering audiences the opportunity to enjoy their major success, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.
Miles Gregory also expects The Maltings Theatre and Arts Centre to welcome back the prestigious Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company in August.
As a glance at its design hints, Alnwick Playhouse was built in the mid-1920s as a 700-seat cinema, but the rival attraction of television obliged the venue to close in 1979.
Vince Hope has been manager and artistic director of the theatre since 2007. He explained that the building had been earmarked for demolition in the 1980s, but was saved by the intervention of the professional touring group, the Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC).
The upper floor was leased by the NTC to the Alnwick District Playhouse Trust, an independent registered charity formed by local people who came together to fund the theatre with financial help from the then district council. Upwards of £500,000 was raised to transform the derelict cinema into a multipurpose arts venue.
Vince remarked: “Essentially we are a live theatre able to seat 260 people and we also have a downstairs studio. We offer entertainment covering all genres – the best we can get. Two films a week are screened and we’ve added some matinees. These are often nostalgic films which appeal to the older generation, but we also bring in the blockbusters and a wide range of art house movies. We want to touch all sectors of the community.”
According to the Alnwick Playhouse manager, although the theatre is one of the lowest funded in the UK, it does very well. “When I’m programming I try to reach out to as many different audiences as possible. We can attract well-known names, despite being a small venue,” he said.
“Alnwick is well placed geographically, so I can negotiate with touring professional theatre companies who may be moving between London and Edinburgh. We’ve welcomed a variety of performers, ranging from The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to Alexei Sayle and John Sergeant, among others.”
Vince Hope considers that Alnwick has a theatre-going culture. “Many of our performances are sold out; we pride ourselves on having 2,000 Friends of the Theatre. Considering our wide catchment area, we are very well supported. We try to offer something for everyone, and that has even meant including American Super Slam Wrestling!”
Community involvement is fully catered for at Alnwick Playhouse. The venue supports its own youth theatre which stages six productions annually. There is a sizeable community choir and the well-subscribed Playhouse Concert Band, which tours the county performing at different venues including weddings, fetes and National Trust properties.
Alnwick’s Stage Musical Society and Theatre Club use the Playhouse, as do the Duchess’s Community High School. It is also the meeting place for several craft groups: the mat-makers, Stitching Together and bobbin lace-makers. The Playhouse writers’ group gathers at the facility, as do adult and ‘Tiny’ yoga classes. Proceeds from the regular Friday coffee mornings benefit the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Vince Hope explained: “We operate as a not-for-profit organisation and 20 years after start-up we’re still managing to balance our books. We’ve never needed baling out like some other theatres, but we do need a good cash injection to upgrade our essential equipment.”
Highlights of 2011 range from a musical presented by the Duchess Community High School to the appearance of musical legend Alan Price. There is also the prospect of a dramatic new adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Artistic director of Hexham’s Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Geof Keys considers that the development of the county’s unitary authority has offered the opportunity for more co-operation between Northumberland’s theatres.
He explained: “We hope to encourage more work to be created in the county and to develop more shared commissioning of performers, developing an economy of scale. All three theatre managers are determined to keep growing their business and programmes, but we recognise that public funding will be different in future. We need to look at sharing good practices, experience and innovation.”
Geof, who believes that the value of the arts lies in improving the quality of people’s lives, pointed out that people are living longer and the arts offered opportunities for personal expression throughout their lives. For example, a successful community choir and the popular ‘Singing Babies’ sessions allow people of all ages to make music at the Queen’s Hall. The centre also runs a youth dance development project held at six venues across the county.
Geof said: “One of our big thrusts is the work we do with young people. Training them to be creative is the essence of our future in a world where solving new problems is more important than repeating old knowledge.”
Outreach services are important to the Queen’s Hall, which has been run as an independent charity for the last decade. The theatre’s mobile cinema currently gives 80 screenings annually and it is expected that the service will be expanded to cover the whole of Northumberland. It also funds and supervises the Highlights Touring Scheme, promoting and supporting shows in village halls and community centres around the county. According to its artistic director, the Queen’s Hall achieves a huge amount with not a lot of money. “West Northumberland is a rural area where people have been helping themselves for a long time,” he said. “We encourage them to take ownership and become involved. The theatre is well supported by the community with over 50 local hires a year, from the Young Farmers’ pantomime to classical music recitals
and flower arranging demonstrations.
“This year will see the launch of a new film group at which discussion groups will be held after each screening, and social events are being planned. We are also expanding our supporters’ base through the Friends of the Queen’s Hall scheme which generates income and volunteer helpers.”
Geof added: “Northumberland County Council recognises the importance of creativity to the future of the county and that the arts sector actually contributes more to the economy than it receives in subsidies. Hexham is in the process of establishing itself as an art town and the Queen’s Hall’s annual programme of professional shows and exhibitions – and one-off events such as the Hexham Gathering and the Hexham Book Festival – play a big part in promoting the town and county for tourism and for inward investment.”
Theatre-goers attending the Queen’s Hall theatre in 2011 will, Geof Keys stressed, find a varied programme of lively cultural events to suit all tastes and ages, from Opera de la Luna to former Jonathan Ross Show regulars Four Poofs and a Piano.
“Our drama programme is particularly strong,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the return of one of our favourite companies, Black-Eyed Theatre, with a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The London Classic Theatre Company will also be back with a production of After Miss Julie. These are some of the best touring companies in the country, with whom we’re pleased to maintain good relationships.”
The Rat Pack is Back recreated the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr at Hexham’s Queen’s Hall.
* For further information about future events, visit: www.highlightsnorth.co.uk or the theatres’ individual websites at: www.maltingsberwick.co.uk www.alnwickplayhouse.co.uk and www.queenshall.co.uk