New Wolsey Theatre AGM 10 Dec 2014
As this is my last meeting, rather than concentrate on the year just past, I would like to take a few moments to reflect on the past six years since I became Chair of the NWT.
At the meeting at which I was appointed Chair, it was reported that the ACE grant had increased by 20% and was to increase in line with inflation over the next 3 years. Different times. However, this was the Spring of 2008, and the onset of the recession was around the corner. The climate very soon became increasingly tough.
But the NWT had a robust and resilient business model, led by people with flair, imagination and tenacity. As a result, there was no scaling back of ambitions – in fact, despite a challenging funding environment, some of the largest productions ever seen on our stage were presented in the ensuing seasons, and some of the best, I believe, to be seen anywhere in the country: Peter Rowe’s productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Chorus of Disapproval, It’s a Wonderful Life, Noises Off, the first actor-musician production of Guys and Dolls, Reasons to be Cheerful (along with Jenny Sealey from Graeae), 20th Century Boy, Our House (with its subsequent national tour), and The Threepenny Opera (which went on to be seen in several other major regional theatres) were all outstanding artistic creations that kept NWT and the ‘brand Ipswich’ ahead of the theatre game. Not to mention a whole cycle of rock n’ roll pantomimes. And these shows attracted enthusiastic, capacity audiences, despite the recession.
Greater collaborative working and the slimming down and control of overheads, with an emphasis on developing new sources of income – from the box office, through improved marketing and the harnessing of new technology; from trusts and foundations; a new Friends scheme; and commercially through creating new links with the business community – were all factors in maintaining the theatre’s finances in the black. Trading income from catering, programme and souvenir sales stabilised and increased profitability. And we have to thank all our funders for understanding the contribution the theatre is making to our communities, and for protecting our levels of funding, despite inevitable cuts, from the scale of short-sighted erosion to be seen elsewhere in the country.
Rob Salmon joined the team around the same time as myself, to head up the new creative learning department, and with minimal staff resources created an extraordinary amount of work in and for the community. The productions of the various youth theatre groups have been exceptional – Our Town, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Elephant Man, Punk Rock, Grimm’s Tales all stand out for me – and it is exciting, with our training and apprenticeship programmes, to see emerging the next generation of theatre makers.
The Board also has the responsibility of stewardship of the company’s assets, in particular our theatre buildings, ensuring that they are maintained and fit for purpose for future generations. Much of the first two or three years of my chairmanship was exercised by the need to develop and improve rehearsal and artist-development/creative learning facilities. We had the opportunity to collaborate with Turnstone Developments on the proposed development of the Civic Centre Westgate site. The relationship brokered by Sarah was so good that Turnstone agreed to sponsor the pantomime. But by Spring 2010 it was clear that this was not going to be a viable way forward and we should look at alternative proposals. With the support of our funders, finding necessary capital monies in a difficult time, this led eventually to the refurbishment of the Studio and the development of the HEG (2012) and backstage redevelopment here on site, making the staff working areas fully accessible for the first time (2013).
We have much to be proud of. Taking the lead on issues of accessibility and diversity – with the Eclipse programme and currently Agent for Change – NWT is fighting above its weight in seeking change within the culture of theatre.
The theatre’s commitment to Artist Development – most obviously seen in the annual Pulse Festival, now thanks to new Arts Council funding secure for at least the next 3 years – led to the relocation of Gecko to Ipswich as a NWT associate company, together with the showcasing of many new companies as part of our touring programme.
Of course it was a great thrill to be awarded the TMA’s Award for Most Welcoming Theatre, most deservedly earned.
I would like to take this last opportunity to thank all the volunteers and Theatre Club members who make such a vital contribution to the work of the theatre. To each of you, the members of the Board, for your commitment and the practical help that you give to the theatre, and for your support to me personally over the past six years. I repeat my thanks to all of our funders for their continued investment in our work. And to all the staff. I believe that we are blessed with a team of great quality, energy, innovation and skill. I would like in particular to pay tribute to Lorna, for all the support she has given me while I have been Chair.
But my final thanks must be to Sarah Holmes. It was she of course who got me into this in the first place. I’ve known Sarah since we sat together on the TMA Council of Management back in the last century, and when she heard that I was retiring, she asked if I would be interested in coming onto the board. I had also worked with Pete in the past, so I knew the quality of his work and admired what together they had done at NWT since their first season here in 2000. So it wasn’t a difficult decision, and I have to say that I have not regretted it for one moment. Sarah’s leadership of this theatre has been exemplary, always wanting to take the theatre forward, and never resting on the laurels of past achievements.
Finally, I would offer every good wish to Richard, Sarah and yourselves moving forward into what I am sure will be another exciting phase in the history of the NWT.