Editors' Blog: A Tale of Hope Amid the Chaos of CutsDate: 4 January 2012
Amid the ongoing turmoil over arts funding cuts, I thought it would be nice to start the new year with a positive tale that has emerged from the mire of recessionary belt-tightening.
Over the Christmas period I made my usual schlep home to Northumberland. Whilst there, I paid a visit to an old university associate, Miles Gregory, who for the past few years has been living in his family holiday home in Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border.
Rather than living the quiet life with his wife and daughter, Miles has been getting stuck in running the local Maltings theatre and arts centre, a venue that, until recent times, languished in run-down obscurity.
He started in 2008 after persuading the board to create a job for him. On a refurbishment budget of just £7,000 he gave the theatre a much-needed facelift and set about dragging it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. No easy task, and there were a number of teething troubles, but in three years he's more than doubled ticket sales and turned a deficit of -£49k into a surplus of £63k.
How did he do it? Well, he started with the basics. “When I first started” he told me, “the Maltings had one email address, which came to the box office. When an email arrived for someone else in the building, someone would print it out, take it to them, and then transcribe their reply.”
So, the solution to that one was pretty obvious. But what wasn't so obvious was how to engage a local community with a programme to which they were not accustomed. “I didn't want to patronise the regular audience,” he says, “instead I served up as broad, high quality and original a programme as the funds could manage.”
Over the past three seasons this has meant visits from big name comedians - Jason Manford, Rich Hall and Julian Clary among them - alongside theatrical big-hitters like Hull Truck, Headlong, Trestle and the National Theatre of Scotland (with whom the Maltings now has an informal partnership). There were 238 live performances programmed in 2011, up from 110 in 2008.
He also successfully applied for European funding to transform the building's main hall into a black box theatre and film studio, which will provide a new, state-of-the-art home for workshops, performances and youth companies for years to come.
All this considered, it's easy to see why Miles caused such an outcry when he recently announced his resignation from the venue. "I'm a changer, not a safe pair of hands", he says, revealing plans to start another "adventure" taking over his family's retail business in New Zealand.
He's certainly left his successor Matthew Rooke a nice leaving present - last year the Maltings was granted National Portfolio status, with ACE funding quadrupled from 2012 onwards. It has more than kept its head while many others in the North East and borders region have lost theirs (including, scandalously, Northumberland Theatre Company and its InterACT theatre training scheme, of which I was a member several years ago).
I applaud what Miles has achieved in Berwick, and wish him well with his new ventures. But most importantly I hope that his example is one that other aspiring artistic directors can follow in these uncertain economic times.