Summary of Current Position

Beverley Picture Playhouse, Feasibilty Review, Alun Bond – Artservice

Beverley has an active arts scene and its festivals are of particular significance, both in terms of arts provision and access to the professional arts, and in supporting the town’s tourism offer and its night time economy (both of which are related). The town’s festivals use a variety of venues, largely due to the lack of a single dedicated arts facility which meets their varying needs. There is general agreement that arts facilities are best located in the town centre.

Beverley has a range of venues, but three are of particular significance: the Playhouse, the Memorial Hall and Longcroft School. All three suffer from major disadvantages at present. The Playhouse lacks facilities and is in a poor state of repair; the Memorial Hall is also in need of major refurbishment and improvement and parking is currently an issue for users; the location of Longcroft School is seen as unsatisfactory for arts events by most of the potential local users and there are other concerns about the facility, including its size (too big for many events), availability, educational ambience and internal design.

The plans to re-develop the Memorial Hall are ambitious and it is not possible at present to be entirely confident that the necessary capital funding can be secured. However, if achievable they offer the possibility of providing the town with a multi-purpose facility with its own dedicated performance space seating up to 240 and modern bar and ancillary facilities. The reversal of the front of the building and other planned developments would improve the availability of parking and the Hall’s relationship with the town centre.

Plans to create a new centre for music and dance on the Longcroft School site also offer the prospect of a new purpose-built facility available for use by the community, but the prime function of the building will be as a centre for the Music Service. There are concerns about its location as a community facility and it is unlikely that it will meet all of the town’s arts facility needs.

Some of the other occasional venues in the town are historic and the issue of access within the context of the Disability Discrimination Act, which comes fully into force in 2004, may limit their suitability for future public arts events, including festival events. This may in practical terms reduce further the range of venues available in the town.

The Playhouse is in an excellent town centre location with good parking in the evenings, but it has had a troubled history in recent years. Operating the venue on a commercial basis has proved very difficult. This is not surprising as the venue has limited capacity (around 300 seats), lacks adequate and attractive audience facilities, is in a very poor condition and barely meets health and safety requirements. In its current condition it is surprising that it has attracted the audiences it has.

If the venue were to have a future it would need major capital investment. This would enable it to be re-designed, possibly to provide a 200 to 250 seat auditorium with greatly improved ancillary facilities including a bar and café/bistro area which could generate income and make the venue more attractive to users.

The former swimming pool to the rear of the building is not currently available (it is leased out commercially for retailing until 2006) and we have not built it into our estimates. Were it to be incorporated into the design, it could provide enhanced facilities for rehearsals, meetings and other activities (though the Council would lose the rental it currently receives for the building). However, without this additional space the Playhouse could not replace the Memorial Hall adequately.

The Council’s proposal to dispose of the lease of the Playhouse has generated a general debate about the ‘culture’ and ambience of the town centre and particularly its evening economy. The Playhouse could play an important role in maintaining a balanced evening economy and in supporting the hotel and restaurant sectors, particularly in respect of visitors to the town. It could also play an enhanced role in providing opportunities for young people to experience the arts, including film.

However, the Council has indicated that it does not wish to provide capital funding for the re-development of the building, nor to make an ongoing revenue funding commitment. If the venue is to have a future it must therefore be on the basis that it can balance the books without substantial Council investment and revenue funding. Furthermore it would require an effective management arrangement either through a commercial arrangement or in the form of a charitable body.

The Council has explored the commercial option of maintaining the venue solely for arts and entertainment use and it is apparent that options are limited. In the following section of this report we shall explore the option of trust operation further in the context of the various options available for improving facilities in the town. It is noticeable however that during the recent debates and campaigns about the Playhouse no group has yet emerged with the aim of developing a trust to take on the lease and management of the Playhouse.

There are no national standards for levels of arts provision and facilities per head of population as there are in relation to sport. Assessing appropriate levels of arts provision and the extent to which existing facilities meet local needs is therefore a difficult challenge, particularly when no two venues are directly comparable. However this is what is required in Beverley to inform considerations about the future of the Playhouse.

We would suggest that given its variety of performing arts activity Beverley will continue to need an assortment of spaces, including a venue with a seating capacity of somewhere in the region of 400 to accommodate performances by larger local groups and festival events of that scale. The town could also accommodate a smaller mixed-purpose venue, ideally seating between 150 and 250 which can be used for events attracting smaller audiences, including festival events, Council dance and music promotions and, possibly, films.

Both sizes of space are required for music, however for dance and drama the smaller space is more appropriate. The above facilities could be supplemented by other occasional venues, such as the Minster, St Mary’s Church and the Guildhall, which have a special quality suitable for certain types of arts events, choral and classical music and readings for instance, and offer greater variety on terms of feel and capacity.

We shall explore how these requirements might be met in the following sections of this report