A turning tide? Theatres Trust's Jon Morgan on the future of coastal theatres
In a new series, we asked industry leaders to share their perspective on the opportunities and challenges facing performing arts venues. Here Jon Morgan, Director of Theatres Trust, looks at why theatres in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable and what the future holds for those on the Theatres at Risk Register.
Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan. Postcards from the Alan Richardson collection, Theatres Trust. Pier image © Ian Grundy.
In January we launched the 2019 Theatres at Risk Register. Of the 31 theatres on the list, 12 are in coastal communities. And looking back since the register started in 2006, there are several more coastal theatres that were on the list that have sadly been lost, including Scarborough Futurist, Civic Ayr, Theatre Royal Barry and Colwyn Bay Pier Theatre.
So why is this the case? It is a combination of social, economic and environmental issues.
Seaside towns were flourishing in the nineteenth century following the expansion of the railway network and became a popular alternative to spas. Theatres were an important part of the entertainment offer in seaside resorts and larger resorts often had entertainment palaces offering a range of attractions under one roof, such as at the Blackpool Winter Gardens. From the 1860s more piers were being constructed, many with theatres or variety halls built on them.
Colwyn Bay. Postcards from the Alan Richardson collection, Theatres Trust.
However, following the outbreak of World War II, many seaside theatres began to be neglected, and by the 1960s, the traditional seaside holiday was losing out to cheap European package holidays. Changing tastes in entertainment saw the types of shows often offered in seaside theatres falling out of fashion and rising costs led to many theatres being closed, to be replaced by lucrative amusement arcades.
Where seaside theatres have survived into modern times, they still have to face higher maintenance costs. The salty air that evokes fond memories of trips to the seaside, coupled with prevailing winds, is a big challenge for theatre operators. The corrosive environment pays its toll on building maintenance - buildings needing repainting more often with a more resilient type of paint, repointing of brickwork and replacement of window and door frames being more frequent.
The environmental problems are even worse for pier theatres, which often have to contend with lashing waves and harsh winds. Of the six remaining pier theatres in the UK, North Pier Pavilion Blackpool is currently on the Theatres at Risk Register. Colwyn Pier was removed from the Theatres at Risk Register in 2018; Storm Doris in 2017 being its ultimate downfall. The dangerous state of the pier required the dismantling of the pier structure including the theatre.
But it is not all doom and gloom.
North Pier Pavilion. © Ian Grundy
There have been seaside theatres removed from the Theatres at Risk Register due to positive outcomes. Shanklin Theatre on the Isle of Wight, Marine Theatre in Lowestoft and Spa Pavilion in Felixstowe have all reopened and are thriving.
In Blackpool, the future is looking brighter for the Pavilion Theatre in the Winter Gardens complex, with a partnership between Selladoor Worldwide and Blackpool Entertainment Company bringing theatre back to the venue. The complex also houses the Opera House and the Empress Ballroom both of which are in use for live performance. And the neighbouring Grade II* listed Matcham gem, The Grand Theatre reopened as a theatre in 1981 and has gone from strength to strength since.
And for other seaside towns the mood is also more positive. Margate is beginning to experience a renaissance with the opening of both Dreamland and the Turner Contemporary, which we hope will spread to the Theatre Royal. Similarly, the recently-announced multi-million pound Eden Project North in Morecambe should have a positive impact on the neighbouring Theatre at Risk Morecambe Winter Gardens.
Morecambe Winter Gardens. © Tom Parnell
The plight of seaside towns has been recognised by the Government with the Coastal Communities Fund aiming to help regeneration. The House of Lords launched the Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities in 2018. We made a submission to the commission, making the case for theatre buildings to be at the heart of culture-led regeneration. We were pleased to see that five projects that include performance spaces have won funding in the latest round of the Coastal Revival Fund.
East Riding of Yorkshire Council has been particularly forward-thinking, with the £25m investment in Bridlington Spa (dance, theatre and conference venue) being at the heart of its regeneration strategy. Re-establishing Bridlington Spa as an iconic, multi-purpose landmark has significantly increased visitors to the town and provided enormous benefit to the local economy. We hope that other local authorities will take inspiration from this and see theatre buildings as assets, not problems.
Bridlington Spa auditorium. © Carlyleroad
Even for those most difficult cases, the pier theatres, things are looking up. Theatres Trust supported the successful bid for Blackpool’s three piers to be placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch List and are one of the projects to receive a Coastal Revival Fund grant, which will support a feasibility study to look at making the piers more sustainable financially and structurally. Colwyn Bay too may have a pier theatre again in the future. Colwyn Victoria Pier Trust is working with both the borough and town councils to rebuild the pier as a major part of the regeneration of Colwyn Bay. The new pier and proposed flexible performance space will utilise as much of the salvaged remains of the old pier and theatre as possible.
While we don’t expect to see a return to the Victorian heyday of seaside theatres, we are feeling more optimistic about the future for our coastal Theatres at Risk.
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Jon Morgan is the Director of the Theatres Trust, established in 1976 to "promote the better protection of theatres for the benefit of the nation". Today they are a national advisory public body for theatres working on saving historic sites and consulting on those in the planning stages. Jon leads the development and delivery of the Trust's strategy. He joined the Trust from the Federation of Scottish Theatre (FST) where he had been Director since 2008. Jon's previous roles include Director of Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Executive Producer of Contact Theatre, Manchester and General Manager of TAG, Glasgow.