Stage fright?

A wave of major theatre building projects financed largely with public funding is nearing completion. Angus Montgomery talks to designers in the sector waiting to see what challenges a greater reliance on private cash could present

Royal Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company’s nes Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Straford-upon-Avon, designed by architect Bennetts Associates working with Charcoal Blue.

The face of Britain’s theatreland is changing, with a string of high-profile projects completing. But with funding in the cultural sector being severely cut back, observers suggest that this could be the last in a wave of major build projects, with theatres instead focusing on marketing campaigns to secure funding and refurbishment work to maintain audience figures.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new home in Stratford-upon-Avon opened its doors to the public on 24 November. The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre was designed by architect Bennetts Associates, working with theatre consultancy Charcoal Blue. The total project cost of £112.8m, which also included work to the Swan Theatre, was covered by £53m from the National Lottery through the Arts Council, £20.4m from regional development agency Advantage West Midlands, and £35.9m from charitable and private donations. The work has seen the introduction of a new auditorium, seating more than 1000 people, while the distance from the stage to the furthest seat has been almost halved from the previous design – from 27m to 15m.

Meanwhile, work is set to commence at the National Theatre in London – under architect Haworth Tompkins, also working with Charcoal Blue – which will see the transformation of the Cottesloe Theatre, which is to be renamed the Dorfman in honour of Travelex chairman Lloyd Dorfman, who has donated £10m to help the project go ahead.

In Manchester, an architectural competition is planned for a £19m building to house the Library Theatre, as well as cultural centre the Cornerhouse. Funding is in place for the building, which is set to open in spring 2014. Mike Amesbury, executive member for culture and leisure at Manchester City Council, says, ’At a time when the arts world is experiencing many cuts, it’s fantastic that Manchester is leading the way by investing in our cultural economy.’

But many observers see this wave of major projects as the last hurrah of a programme of building encouraged by the Labour Government, Lottery cash and councils keen to replicate the ’Bilbao effect’ (the regenerative boost enjoyed by the Spanish city when the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim outpost opened there), which will be impossible to maintain under the current administration and its squeeze on funding.

Cog Design developed the branding for the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, which is set to open next year. The identity references the spike on the Keith Williams Architects-designed building’s flytower. Cog director Michael Smith says, ’Cultural investment always reaps rewards, but at the moment I think you are seeing a lot of councils running scared. Because spending on culture isn’t mandatory, councils can use it as a headline-grabbing cut, even when the amounts involved are relatively small.’

Smith thinks the focus in the theatre world is shifting towards aiming to secure private funding, saying, ’People are upping their development departments at the moment. There’s also a focus on online funding, with people using Just Giving accounts, for example.’

Jim Richardson, creative director of Sumo Design, which specialises in working in the cultural sector, agrees that there is much talk in the sector of securing funding through private means, be it legacies, membership schemes or other initiatives, and that design groups are well placed to help clients do this. However, he says the obvious downside will be a drop in major build projects going ahead.

Richardson says, ’I think you can get a reasonable amount of funding from the private sector, but not the tens of millions it costs to build new venues. Largely, the funding will be for education programmes or refurbishment work.

’Having said that though, there is still Heritage Lottery funding available and last week the Tate announced it had raised £28.5m towards its refurbishment [to cost £45m, with designs by architect Caruso St John].’

Tim Foster, senior partner in Foster Wilson Architects, which has carried out refurbishment work on the New Wimbledon Theatre and is also developing designs for the Westminster Theatre in London’s West End, says, ’Obviously, with the work that’s going on at the moment a lot of the funding is historic. It wouldn’t be as easy to come by [that money] now – there’s no doubt the climate is very difficult.’ He adds, ’Also, with the RSC and the National you’re talking about two major national institutions – they will be able to raise money on a scale others can’t.’

Foster says, ’There is still privately-funded work in the theatre sector – we do work for independent schools and private theatre companies, for example – but generally this is not on the same scale.’

KWA director Keith Williams, architect of the Unicorn Theatre in London and the Marlowe Theatre, says, ’Over the past ten to15 years, really since the advent of Lottery funding, it has been possible to rejuvenate the country’s cultural infrastructure.’ While Williams says he hopes the current scenario of restricted funding is just a ’phase’, he suggests that private sector funding could be harnessed to support cultural projects. He says, ’Maybe we should look at the potential for corporate funding, perhaps through the tax system.’

Theatre design – key elements

  • Keith Williams, Keith Williams Architects: ’What’s most important is the sense of engagement between audience and performers. I suppose what we’ve been trying to achieve is to bring a sense of community you get in a smaller space and carry that into the larger spaces’
  • Tim Foster, Foster Wilson Architects: ’I think the key thing is generating a sense of community and ensuring that the audience is conscious of seeing each other and getting a shared experience’
  • Michael Smith, Cog Design: ’In branding terms, the main distinction in theatre is that the client is nearly always the artistic director, so there’s always a real sense of them bringing an artistic vision to the work’

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