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Save The Theatres

Kaitlin Dryburgh

Last year an independent review of the Scottish theatre industry was published, which was a collaboration of some of the most prominent theatre groups in the country. The appropriately named Disappearing Act laid bare the issues that they need to overcome. From higher running costs, an inability to train and retain skilled staff, and a recovery from the pandemic which is longer and harder hitting than first thought. Painting a picture of the theatre scene in Scotland it was concluded that producing theatres were relying on a small number of return bookers who prop the industry up. Even though just less than half of the Scottish public will visit the theatre once a year this significantly drops when looking at return customers within 12 months. Furthermore, many Scottish theatre groups struggle to get their work to tour on a national platform, which means only 15% of the theatre we consume originated from Scotland.

Several recommendations were provided. Among them, establishing a federal style touring company where theatre groups through-out Scotland work in collaboration with one another. This indeed received mixed feedback, with some hailing it the answer to the problem and others stating this thought process got us into this mess in the first place. Another much more well received option was the proposed establishment of a workforce programme’, again collaborative working to bolster the theatre workforce. Either way the industry knows it has no option but to change and diversify in order to survive.

The theatres in which brilliant performances are acted out, where people have soaked in the atmosphere for years, maybe crammed in to a small seat but happy none the less to be part of something special. These special buildings, current or historic have played a part in our culture, and in our communities.

But if the Disappearing Act is correct the buildings that we have enjoyed many a night are at risk too. Some have already been lost. Yet on the flipside of all the doom and gloom are the determine groups not to lose anymore theatres, and in fact return some historic structures to their former glory.

Old cinemas and theatres are a bridge to the past. Art Deco features, or gilded ceilings, thick velvet and architectural features that were simply there because they were pleasing to the eye, not for function. Something that doesn’t happen now adays. A new theatre is lovely and can serve a different purpose but the beauty of some of our historic performing arts venues cannot be under-stated. The 20th century saw the boom of mainstream cinema and the continuous popularity of the theatre and as such theatres and cinemas grew in vast numbers. In Glasgow alone the number of current, shut-down, and demolished theatres and cinemas is well over a 100.

Aberdeen’s Tivoli theatre is a Grade A listed structure built in 1872. Originally an opera house and theatre the building went through some transformations throughout the centuries. From hosting the greats such as Chaplin and Laurel until in 1997 it closed its doors having spent the last decade as a bingo hall. It fell foul of changing times, from changing trends towards period features, the advent of the TV, even the National lottery and online bingo rendered its less preferred form as a bingo hall obsolete. The theatre fell into complete disrepair until it was in a critical condition. The Tivoli Theatre Company purchased the theatre in 2009 and had it completely resorted. It’s a wonderful space which would have otherwise been completely lost if others hadn’t stepped in.

Currently sitting in the balance is the old Vogue cinema in Glasgow. Following a similar theme the cinema which was once very well used was turned into a bingo hall but has laid empty and dilapidated since the 90s. Unfortunately, there is no group coming to the rescue to bring this cinema back up to its former glory. However, after some of the community got wind that the owners were set to demolish this building they brought this to the attention of Historic Environment Scotland (HES). Paul Sweeney MSP joined in the call to save it, since the architecture is somewhat significant and both HES and Glasgow Council agreed and a very dramatic U-turned ensued. Sweeney hopes that although this will never be a cinema again the handsome façade can be saved from a wrecking ball and incorporated into a new development like many others have been able to achieve.

The Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Belmont in Aberdeen were told in 2022 they would be closing down when their parent company went into administration. Although the Edinburgh Filmhouse was able to be saved (mostly due to it’s participation in the film festival), the cinema is still yet to open. The group that saved it comprised of former employees, filmmakers, and actors such as Brian Cox, Emma Thompson, and Alan Cumming, they all saw the value in saving the cinema from being swallowed up from a property developer. In order to secure its future and not just fall into the same predicament the theatre has to renovate. Although they raised a tremendous amount through crowdfunding it wasn’t enough, thankfully at the start of this year they were granted money from the UK government’s community ownership fund. This will finally allow them to open their doors and welcome people in once again. Aberdeen’s Belmont however, it’s not such a happy story. Although the population size in Edinburgh is undoubtedly bigger and the city benefits from inflated tourism the divide between the central belt and the north is rather pronounced when it comes to the creative industries.

There are numerous theatres and cinemas through-out Scotland which have had to fight and crowdfund to keep going, and unfortunately that doesn’t look set to end. The Mobile Cinema which has serviced the Highland and Islands for the last 25 years was narrowly saved but has only secured funding for the next two years. While Edinburgh’s popular Kings Theatre has managed to scrape together enough funding to complete some essential renovations. These are both well used spaces.

Another problem set out by the Disappearing Act is the fact that many theatre groups don’t actually own the freehold for their building, so their freedoms to future proof the building or even run an establishment that embraces carbon cutting practices is significantly reduced. This puts them in a vulnerable situation with little control.

Although we can’t save every building, it might not always be the best thing to do. But there needs to be an appreciation and at least a consideration to incorporate the architecture of historic performing arts structures. They have played an reoccurring role in our culture. It would be great If there were more success stories like Aberdeen’s Tivoli Theatre but our first priority should really be to those who never shut-down.

For the theatres and cinemas which are currently performing and producing it would be great to see some protection afforded to them. The general election campaign has kicked off and little has been said about the arts. It would be fantastic to see recognition that this sector shouldn’t be seen as a luxury but something that makes life worth living and a cornerstone of our education. It bolsters our economy and provides many jobs, it helps us on the world stage as a soft power.

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