Give Darlington Arts Centre to the people

COMMENT: If Darlington Council can no longer run Darlington Arts Centre, it should be handed to people who can.

One issue that’s been discussed a lot throughout the theatre world but not much on this blog is the cuts to arts subsidies. I’ve got mixed views about it myself, which I may go into another day, but this post is about what’s happening now. As it happens, north-east theatres aren’t doing too badly. Live Theatre and Northern Stage have kept their “portfolio” status (as has the Stephen Joseph Theatre). The Theatre Royal and Sunderland Empire are very much commercial ventures and so have little to fear. The Gala Theatre has got some sort of status as a “cultural” hub for all of Durham’s festivals. There’s issues over local authority funding and internal politics at the Gala, but on the whole there’s no prospect of any of these places closing their doors.

A glaring exception is Darlington. Darlington Borough Council ran two theatres on Arts Council support: the Civic Theatre and the Arts Centre. But unlike its Newcastle counterparts, lack year, the funding was scrapped. For a while, the closure of both theatres was contemplated. Thankfully, the Civic Theatre has done well enough since then to escape the axe, but the Arts Centre was not so lucky. In July this year, Darlington Arts Centre was closed, and this is a big loss to the town. The Civic Theatre alone does not compensate for this. Small theatres are an asset because they allow small-scale productions to perform that would never be viable in a 500+ seat theatre. I see little chance that plays going to the Arts Centre will be using the Civic Theatre instead.

The fact remains, however, that the subsidy needed to run the Arts Centre was more than the council could spare. One thing that won’t happen is demolition – protected building status sees to that. There is talk of converting it to a “multi-use facility” including a hotel, restaurant, business units as well as an arts space. I worry they’ll get carried away with the project and not get round to bothering with the arts space bit. My view is that before we look at any of this, let’s see if there are people in Darlington who will take it over, or least the theatre spaces. Can’t afford to employ the people you need to run a theatre? Then look for people who will do it for free.

And we already have at least three examples of theatres run by volunteers: the People’s Theatre in Heaton, the Royalty Theatre in Sunderland, and the City Theatre in Durham. These are not just amdram groups knocking together the odd production for their village halls: the own the buildings, pay for the repairs, manage the front of house, operate and maintain the equipment. The people doing this don’t do it because the local council pays them to: it’s because that’s what they want to do. It’s not clear whether this would be viable with a building of this size, but perhaps this could be done with part of the building, or with volunteers supported by a smaller subsidy.

Or perhaps this could become a shared home for several theatre companies. When I saw The Girl With No Heart back in July, apart the the great play, the other thing that struck me was the Brook Theatre’s “resident companies”. Sparkle and Dark, along with three other companies, have a permanent office and presence in Chatham’s old town hall. I really like the idea of this and it’s an interesting alternative to most producing theatres with a single company. For all the virtues of Live Theatre or Northern Stage or the Stephen Joseph Theatre, they are all one company setting the artistic programming, either their own work or other productions that fit in with what they had in mind. This gives the people more choice of what to see and offers small groups a foothold in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere in the north-east. Chatham’s Brook Theatre is not Darlington Arts Centre and I don’t know if a model that works in one could work in the other, but it would be a great asset to Darlington if they could pull this off.

The arts scene in the north-east is already far too Newcastle-centric. It’s great that Tyne and Wear offers the Sage, the Baltic, the Angel of the North and a wide variety of theatres, but there is far more to the north-east than Newcastle. It’s unfortunate that local authorities can no longer subsidise arts the way they used to, but public money is not the only way of doing it. The other way is graft and determination of people who value these assets enough to keep them going. People who would quite gladly put their spare time into this. I’m sure there are people out there who will come forward if asked, and if Darlington Council haven’t found them, perhaps they should look harder.

For once, this “Big Society” idea has a chance to work. Let’s not waste it.