Worthing Daily asked former manager of The Ritz Dan Thompson for his thoughts on Worthing Theatres in light of the recent £484,000 budget overspend.
Here is what Dan has to say …..
The Connaught’s a special place for me. It’s where a career that’s taken me all over the world, and from Worthing Town Hall to No 10, started. Many more famous names started there too, and the country’s theatres are filled with people with a great love of the Union Place site.
But it’s always been an awkward building. The real Connaught is next door and upstairs, in the Studio upstairs in the old Connaught Buildings. Bill Fraser’s repertory company started here in the 1930s, and it’s where I started too – I was the first manager when it reopened as The Ritz in the early 1990s, after years of being knocked about as a rehearsal room and scenery workshop. As fortune’s changed, Fraser’s company moved to the larger cinema next door, and took the Connaught name with them. They rather roughly bolted a stage and a new foyer onto the existing Picturedrome building, creating a few headaches for every stage manager since. A later remodelling didn’t help, creating the uncomfortable auditorium we know today.
The Connaught has bounced from boom to near bust ever since. Recent news about a half-a-million a year overspend at Worthing Theatres suggest there’s another rocky time ahead. While the losses are being explained as investment, as part of new manager Amanda O’Reilly’s ten year plan, there’s a bigger issue underlying them. I don’t think any other town or city (and for work, I visit 30 a year) has as many council-funded venues as Worthing. The Pavilion, Denton Lounge, Assembly Hall, Richmond Rooms, Connaught Theatre and Studio, and the Barn at Field Place – all are funded by the council, and that’s unusual.
The Brighton Dome and the Theatre Royal are both independent of the council, the first a charity and the second part of a commercial theatre group. The Hawth in Crawley is run by Parkwood Theatres, not the council. Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion is run by a charity. Those venues can all access extra funds, not available to the council – for example, support with programming from Arts Council or with building restoration from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
It’s possible, of course, that the same future is planned for Worthing’s theatres. If the long-term vision is to spin the venues off as a separate entity, getting the taxpayer to foot the bill for as much work as possible before that happens would mean that the future company can start on sound financial footings.
But maybe it’s time for something more radical – and something very much in the spirit of Bill Fraser. Perhaps it’s time to build a new, 21st century theatre for Worthing. So how’s that even an option, at a time when losses suggest quite a different future?
Let’s keep the Studio as a small venue, as it’s above shops and would be very hard to remove. But put it in the hands of a trust, just like the Dome. It would make a great live music and comedy venue, and a venue like Manchester’s Band On The Wall shows a good business model for that.
We have to keep the Pavilion, because you really can’t do anything else with it. We keep the Assembly Hall, because again it’s connected to other buildings, so would be hard to remove. But all the space alongside the Assembly Halls, and the spaces between the Museum, Library and Assembly Hall, are useful too. On them, we build a new smaller Connaught Theatre. We add new foyers, box office and café spaces, shared by Museum, Connaught and Assembly Halls. This shared space will immediately deliver savings, through combined staffing and increased turnover.
And to fund it, we sacrifice The Connaught’s original building for redevelopment. With the car park next door, the adjacent Police station site, and the space left facing the High Street from unfinished development years ago, a massive town centre site is unlocked just when we need more houses built and there’s government funding available. Imagine a development like Shoreham’s Ropetackle – housing, offices and shops mixed together to create a new town centre Connaught Village.
Because the truth is, The Connaught’s architecture has never been important; what happened on the stage, is. The play’s the thing, as somebody wise once said. And that started next door and moved – let’s do that again, in Fraser’s spirit.
Dan Thompson is at: www.danthompson.co.uk