Drama out of a crisis

Burnley Empire is one of the venues that may have made it off the at-risk list with help from the Theatres Trust. But how will the others across the north fare?

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Published last week, the 2020 Theatres at Risk Register once again serves to highlight the difficulties facing many venues throughout the country.

Since the register – compiled by the Theatres Trust – began in 2006 it has brought to public attention theatres deemed to be at risk for lack of funding, structural problems, difficulties with maintenance or threat from development. All those on the register have strong architectural or cultural significance, with the potential to be revitalised and ultimately become genuine assets to a large sector of the local community.

To prevent further theatres finding themselves on the Theatres at Risk Register, the privately-funded Theatres Trust hopes arts funders and government policy makers begin to recognise the benefits active theatre operations bring to towns and cities. Subsequently this will lead to further long-term capital investment strategies.

“Often it’s local community groups or theatre operators themselves who bring buildings to our attention, or we pick up things in the news or through local councils,” says Claire Appleby, architectural adviser for the Covent Garden-based Theatres Trust. “We can then offer support through free advice, a series of grant schemes we operate and by helping to co-ordinate things like publicity and fundraising.”

Some 177 theatres have featured on the Theatres at Risk Register over the years, with 80 of these now either open as live performance spaces, undergoing refurbishment or, in a handful of cases, replaced with alternative premises. During the previous 12 months two theatres have been removed from the list.

Bradford Odeon is now set to open as a live venue either later this year or during 2021, with an ambitious 200 events a year planned, while Peterborough New Theatre reopened last September with a strong programme of productions. The current register features buildings in Morecambe, Salford, Blackpool, Liverpool, Doncaster, Hulme, Hyde and Manchester among others throughout the country.

“Sadly there are theatres which have been on the list since it began,” says Appleby. “These tend to be the most difficult cases to get off the register. That said, we’re confident that every single building we’re looking at has a viable reuse and can be saved.”

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Burnley Empire is a case in point. On the Theatres Trust’s register since 2006, the building is now part of the organisation’s capacity building programme, which provides grants and in-depth advice during the early stages of rescue and restoration. Built in 1894 – and once host to Harry Houdini – the grade II-listed facility has remained empty since 1995. It has recently been purchased by the Burnley Empire Trust.

Sophie Gibson has been involved with the drive to restore the Empire since the campaign began in earnest during 2015. She’s now director and chair of the Burnley Empire Trust and charged with overseeing plans to re-establish the theatre. “There was a similar attempt to look at restoring the building back in 1997 but I think we’ve seen a generational shift since then and people can now see the benefits that having a theatre back in Burnley can bring,” explains Gibson.

“With the Theatres Trust on our side we bought the building, which was owned by the Duchy of Lancaster, back in December 2018. We’ve now physically secured the building, conducted surveys and are currently making the theatre wind and watertight.

“We’ve also had help from the local council with viability studies and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which has helped with taking our group forward as a charitable organisation. Everything is heading in the right direction. We want the Empire to become a hub, a place which brings people together not just for theatrical performances but also for musical concerts and a whole host of other uses.”

“The plans for Burnley Empire are a prime example of a theatre becoming much more than a place where people go to watch a show,” agrees Appleby. “The actual reconstruction process will be important, with local people learning construction and management skills as the building is restored. Theatres such as the Empire are often situated in the heart of towns and cities, and can help rejuvenate entire high streets with increased footfall and an air of positivity. Theatres can become real resources, real focal points for a local community.”

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