Futurist: The benefits of having a large theatre

Copy of letter to Cllr Tom Fox.

The Futurist Theatre, Scarborough.

I am writing on behalf of The Theatres Trust to express our concern about item 10 of the agenda for the cabinet meeting of Scarborough Borough Council on July 16, 2013, which deals with the development of the Town Hall and wider development site, due to the impact that this will have on the Futurist Theatre and the overall theatre infrastructure within Scarborough.

To remind you of The Theatres Trust’s remit:

Remit

The Theatres Trust is The National Advisory Public Body for Theatres. The Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2010 (DMPO), Articles 16 and 17, Schedule 5, Para (w), requires the Trust to be consulted on planning applications which include ‘development involving any land on which there is a theatre’. It was established by The Theatres Trust Act 1976 ‘to promote the better protection of theatres’. This applies to all theatre buildings.

Our main objective is to safeguard theatre use, or the potential for such use, but we also provide expert advice on design, conservation, property, and planning matters to theatre operators, local authorities and official bodies. We offer leadership and strategic thinking and help to promote the value of theatres as cultural anchors in towns and cities, as places of entertainment attracting a diversity of audiences and visitors, and as beacons for regeneration and local pride.

Advice

The paper starts with the proposition that “the continued operation of a Theatre in the current site is unsustainable” and outlines the process through which this conclusion has emerged. Whilst we would acknowledge that the process has been thorough, we would argue that it is flawed, and, as a result, has come to some conclusions about The Futurist Theatre and the wider theatre infrastructure within Scarborough which are not correct. As you are aware, The Theatres Trust has been involved in consultation about Scarborough’s theatres for some time, and, as part of this, was asked to respond to consultation about the redevelopment of The Spa Theatre in 2009. Whilst generally supportive of the scheme, our response did however say “We remain concerned about the projected business case for the proposed works within the Grand Hall and the extent to which, even with the works, it will help to achieve Scarborough’s overall theatre strategy and requirements for theatre infrastructure. We understand the need to upgrade the facilities within the Grand Hall to provide a multi-purpose venue to enable an appropriate mix of both commercial and non-commercial activities and for delivering a product of the appropriate quality and type to cater successfully for the Borough’s local and visitor markets. However, The Theatres Trust considers that the Grand Hall will still only offer limited facilities for larger touring shows because it has no fly tower, restricted wing space and poor sightlines and therefore could not be considered to provide for the lack of a ‘lyric’ theatre for the town.

It is our contention that The Futurist Theatre does fulfil this role – it has a capacity of over 2,000, with good sightlines and a fly tower, and it can therefore present larger touring productions, which cannot otherwise be seen within Scarborough. We were not consulted when consultants Wafer Hadley updated the Burton/Cogo-Fawcett report in 2012, but we note with interest that they quote The Spa’s operators, SIV’s belief that there is a role for a venue with over 2000 seats within Scarborough. Even in its current state, it is notable that performances ranging from Gary Barlow to The Calendar Girls, have done exceptionally well at The Futurist in recent years – with the former, we understand, refusing to play anywhere smaller.

We would, of course, agree that work needs to be done to the theatre to bring it up to modern standards and compensate for the lack of investment in recent years, but we would argue that this would lead to real benefits for Scarborough. Firstly, it would offer the residents of Scarborough and its hinterland the opportunity to see a much wider variety of theatre and live entertainment than otherwise. Wafer Hadley’s contention is that much of what The Futurist does, and could, offer, is now available within the wider region, most notably in York, but also Leeds, but this seems to ignore the fact that this restricts access to those who are willing (and able) to drive quite long distances. Secondly, cultural tourism is generally seen to be an increasingly important part of the tourist offer, especially for the domestic market. At a time when other tourist areas are trying to increase their cultural offer, Scarborough is at risk of reducing its provision. As countless economic impact studies have shown, audiences attending theatre performances bring with them a notable secondary spend, which does much to benefit the surrounding area. We would suggest that a buoyant theatre sector, providing a range of entertainment opportunities for visitors to Scarborough, and marketed effectively, would be a real benefit for the town.

If, despite this, you do decide that The Futurist has no long-term future and should be demolished as part of the redevelopment of the Town Hall site you should be very aware of the negative impact this would cause. Since there is no timescale for the redevelopment scheme, consideration of closure would make the situation very difficult for the current operator of the Theatre. It is also likely to make the theatre less attractive to other operators, if the current operator decides not to renew his lease because of this.

Whilst the paper acknowledges that this might be the result, it does not really deal with the implications of what could be a closed theatre building on its prominent seafront site for an unknown period of time. A closed theatre building soon deteriorates, and risks becoming a target for vandals and anti-social behaviour.

We would strongly recommend that Scarborough Borough Council does all in its power to ensure that the Futurist remains open until the redevelopment of the site. This could involve providing additional support to the current operator, or indeed any other operator. In the light of the negative publicity for the theatre which this Cabinet Meeting has now engendered, we suggest that you consider supporting additional marketing initiatives which announce that the Futurist is and will remain so for the immediate future.

Mhora Samuel

Director

The Theatres Trust

Charing Cross Road

London