Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Peter Longman, Director of the Theatres Trust


  Thank you for your letter of 23 January 2002. We spoke about this and I explained that the Theatres Trust have had very little involvement in the proposals for the South Bank.

  Although the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall have both been used as theatres, they are primarily concert halls and as such it could be argued that they fall outside The Theatre's Trust remit. Lambeth Borough Council has not referred the planning application to us, although I note that it has been with them for a considerable time. However they have also failed to refer applications relating to Royal National Theatre, which are clearly covered by the requirement in the General Development Orders that the Theatres Trust be consulted on planning applications which affect on which there is a theatre.

  You may certainly take it that my Trustees would share the general concern over the time it is taking to effect major improvements to the buildings on the South Bank and to enhance the surrounding area. Clearly it is right that an internationally important complex of arts buildings such as this be kept up to date and refurbished, and it is entirely appropriate that "public" funding (albeit in this instance of a hybrid nature from the National Lottery) should be made available for that purpose.

  It may be that the overall development plans are too ambitious and that part of the problems now being encountered results from the need to seek an unrealistic proportion of the total costs from "commercial" and property related developments. It may also be that the scope and importance of this project is such that it is unfortunate that the planning decision has to rest with a borough council that is in the middle of revising its local plan.

  I am sure my Trustees would urge the Committee to do all that it can to expedite matters. The suggestions made at Section 8 of the 10 January briefing paper submitted by the South Bank Centre seem to be sensible.

  I have prepared a separate note on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford upon Avon, where the Trust has been closely involved and I feel able to offer a personal statement. As I explained, the situation there is still evolving and in some way it is too early to give definitive answers to the questions you have asked, but I have done my best.


  1.  The Theatres Trust was established by Act of Parliament in 1976 to help protect theatres. Its fifteen Trustees are appointed by the Government and it receives a small Government grant channelled through English Heritage, although its remit now covers the whole of the United Kingdom. The Trust is not a preservation body, but has recognised from the outset that theatres need to be adapted and improved if they are to continue to attract audiences and operate efficiently. As theatre use is rarely viable in strictly commercial terms without subsidy, much of the Trust's work has been in defending theatre sites from redevelopment for other more lucrative purposes. It was in part for this reason that theatre use is regarded as sui generis in planning terms and that the Trust was made a statutory consultee on planning application which affect land on which there is a theatre. The Trust also provides advice to Lottery distributors and helps theatre owners, operators and local groups.

  2.  I have been the Director of The Theatres Trust since 1996 and was for five years prior to that one of its Trustees. My career has spanned the arts and heritage, including eleven years as Director of the former Museums & Galleries Commission (now part of Re:source) and nine years from 1969 running the Arts Council of Great Britain's Housing the Arts Scheme during the last arts building boom. I have also twice acted as client for building schemes and, on a voluntary basis, have advised English National Opera and the Chichester Festival Theatre on their redevelopment proposals. The Theatres Trust is well aware of the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) development proposals for Stratford upon Avon and its officers have been providing advice on them since 1998.

  3.  The relationship between audience and performer is probably the single most important factor in the success of any theatre building. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon they got it wrong in 1932. Successive directors and designers have tinkered with the problem, but the distance between performers and audience is too great, the structural width of the proscenium arch opening is too narrow, and the confrontational fan-shaped auditorium prevents the sort of relationship whereby audiences embrace each other and those on the stage. These fundamental flaws have been evident since the day that the theatre opened. To quote Iain Mackintosh, Britain's foremost theatre consultant (and now a member of the RSC team), the design was almost universally praised by architects and almost universally condemned by the theatre world.

  4.  In addition the building now shows signs of its age and of how fashions and needs have changed since 1932. As early as 1936 it was found necessary to create additional space for audiences by extending out over the river. Additional seating capacity in the balcony exacerbated the distance from the stage and the unfortunate legacy from Victorian theatre whereby part of the audience were treated as second class citizens and entered through a side door. By today's standards the building falls well short in terms of access and audience facilities and working conditions.

  5.  Historically, theatres were not built to last and until seventy years ago the economics of theatre ownership and production were such that owners and managers could afford to rebuild or remodel every twenty years or so. Frequent fires often speeded the natural process of regeneration. The use of steel and concrete and stricter building controls, increased building costs, the decline in demand for theatre buildings, and (more recently) listing and other planning controls, halted this continual process of theatrical renewal.

  6.  I have little doubt that if money were no object and planning and listing controls did not exist the simplest solution now would be to demolish the whole of the 1932 building and start again. Even within the normal constraints imposed by listing but taking account of theatrical precedents elsewhere, the whole of the present auditorium and everything between the front foyer and the rear stage could probably be sacrificed without undue difficulty. In our experience English Heritage has always taken a commendably understanding attitude to the particular needs of theatres.

  7.  In heritage terms it seems generally agreed that the original facade and the main foyer and staircase are by far the most important and best elements of what is now a Grade II* listed building. Irrespective of the theatrical needs of the RSC, particularly forceful arguments would have to be made in order to justify the demolition of these elements. Three questions must immediately be answered. Is it possible to meet the RSC's brief within the curtilage of the present building without its total demolition; is it possible to do so elsewhere within the town; and whether in that event an alternative use might be found for the present theatre?

  8.  To my mind the answers to these three questions are inter-related. The sheer size and volume of a purpose-built theatre including the fly-tower are unlikely to be acceptable or feasible elsewhere in the town. Extensive studies by the theatre company seem to demonstrate that the present site is the only and for many reasons the best option. The auditorium and stage of the existing theatre could readily be remodelled and improved for continued theatre use, but not necessarily to meet in full the brief of the RSC. However, the theatre seems unlikely to lend itself for any other economic use such as a pub, club, church, cinema or bingo hall—uses that have kept other large listed former theatre buildings in beneficial use elsewhere. In short it seems most unlikely that the RSC's brief for the RSC for its main theatre building could be accommodated in full on this site without demolishing totally the 1932 building.

  9.  Two further issues may then need to be considered.

  10.  The first is the extent to which the RSC may be able to afford its full brief. This entails a new theatre, upgrading the very successful Swan Theatre, creating an academy, and putting up a new larger adaptable space on the site of The Other Place. All of these objectives are clearly desirable, as are the intention to enhance the surrounding areas to create a theatre village and improve traffic congestion. A major redevelopment on these lines would seem entirely appropriate for the birthplace of the world's greatest playwright, and the base of one of the world's greatest theatre companies, and one of the United Kingdom's most important tourist centres. But this will not come cheap. Furthermore there is the added complication that the theatre company and the town (the economy of which so greatly depends on the existence of the theatre and its success) simply cannot afford a total closure during a re-building programme.

  11.  The contribution of £50 million from the Arts Council of England is entirely appropriate in the context of other grants given by the National Lottery for cultural flagships. Indeed it could be argued that more might have been justified, but the RSC is better placed than many other arts organisations to raise money from other sources. Nevertheless the total budget of £100 million must be tight for what is intended. The drastic reduction in the Arts Council of England's lottery funding for building projects (with a maximum now of £5 million for any one scheme) has come about since the RSC award was announced and has caused severe problems across the country. The Theatres Trust is extremely concerned at the backlog of work still needing to be done to many of our theatre buildings. But that should not be a reason for reneging on this commitment. Of course the RSC may come to the position when it has to cut its cloth to match the total funding likely to be available. In the first instance this should be reflected in revisions to the brief. Questions like the extent to which all the accommodation needs to be fitted into a new building on the present theatre site will inevitably be raised.

  12.  The second issue relates to the design as well as to the brief. The brief calls for the theatre to be adaptable to encompass two different forms of auditorium. The first of these is the traditional proscenium arch whereby (in essence) the audience look through a picture frame onto the stage. This form (unknown in Shakespeare's day and badly exemplified in the present building) is the form now prevalent in the large theatres throughout the United Kingdom where the RSC may expect to tour its shows. The other form, an open or thrust stage, would have been recognisable to Shakespeare and has the audience partly encircling the action. In architectural terms the two forms are almost totally incompatible, at least at the large scale envisaged here. There is no evidence in the feasibility study reports that the distinguished architects and theatre consultants engaged have yet resolved this. The RSC team are confident that they can, but unless and until they do there must be risk that one unsatisfactory auditorium built in 1932 will simply be replaced by another 75 years later. However it does seem quite likely that any auditorium which did successfully combine both formats in a readily adaptable manner would need considerably more space than one that simply accommodated either the one or the other. To my mind this aspect of the brief may be the one most likely to determine whether or not the whole of the 1932 theatre has to be demolished or whether its foyer and facade can be retained and incorporated into a new design.

  13.  The Theatres Trust's Trustees have already indicated that they would, if appropriate, be prepared to support the RSC in proposals that would result in the loss of the whole of the 1932 building. The Trust was set up to protect theatre use, not to preserve buildings. In the context of theatre evolution over the centuries, 70 years is a very long time for a theatre that was fundamentally flawed to have survived. But we all have to work within the constraints of planning law and government policies relating to listed buildings. The RSC may yet discover that its brief has to be tailored for budgetary or practical reasons, or that it is simply not able or no longer needs to make a sufficiently strong case to justify the total loss of Elizabeth Scott's 1932 theatre. It has recently commissioned independent experts to look carefully at these and other issues in the light of planning and listed building law. It would be premature to speculate further until that study is ready in April.

  14.  The RSC is well advised and has been undertaking the necessary research and planning processes in a responsible and careful manner as befits the importance and significance of this venture. The Arts Council of England deserves praise for its willingness to support them. The Theatres Trust will continue to monitor the situation and to fulfil its roles as a statutory consultee and an advisory body, and to urge that the best possible solution be achieved for the theatre and for theatregoers in the 21st century.

4 February 2002

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