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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Byre theatre closure

This morning the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, announced it was closing because of the danger of becoming insolvent. Here's the official statement

As a reminder of what we are losing, I dug out this article I wrote for the Herald in 1997:

LAST week I took a peak into the Byre Theatre auditorium for the last time. Never again will I see that narrow oblong room, the audience occupying little more space than the stage, in a building hidden away on a footpath off the main road, like some clandestine meeting house for the artistically deprived.

Thanks to a £3,385,000 lottery award, the biggest of its kind in Scotland, the St Andrews theatre is being demolished, and a completely new building going up in its place. The bulldozers are expected to arrive at the start of August. Next time a member of the public gets inside the town's only professional theatre space, it will be the autumn of 1999, when the old 174-seat auditorium will have been replaced by a 220-seater with back-stage facilities previously only dreamed of.

It's the most ambitious of the various lottery-funded projects taking place around the country at the moment. Many theatres are upgrading their dressing rooms, re-upholstering their seats, or sprucing up their box offices, but to go as far as starting again from scratch is something else.

It's certainly an unimaginable leap from the theatre's first incarnation in a former cow-shed, rented for £10 a year in 1933. The actress Una McLean got her first job there in 1954, and remembers having to climb out of the dressing room down a ladder to get onto the stage. If she took her exit on the opposite side, she had to go out into the yard and back up a steel staircase. "You had to exit prompt side in all kinds of weathers," she recalls. "You'd be out in the pouring rain, and having to go up the staircase to come back on the other side."

That building was vacated in 1970 to make way for a new purpose-built theatre on the same site. Sadly, they lost the notice saying "Please keep your feet off the stage," in the process. Happily, leg room was no longer a problem. The new theatre served the company well, but after 25 years the roof was leaking, the heating malfunctioning, access was poor for disabled people, and there was little hope of it surviving into the next millennium.

When artistic director Ken Alexander returns at the end of his itinerant season in two years' time, he will find vastly improved facilities. No longer will passers-by on Abbey Street be faced by an unwelcoming concrete facade showing no signs of life. Instead they'll see a long, airy foyer running along the north side of the building, leading to a first-floor restaurant and second-floor box office.

The architects, Nicoll Russell Studios, who also worked on Dundee Rep, have aimed to retain the intimacy that has characterised the Byre throughout its history, increasing the audience capacity only to 220. Backstage, there'll be major improvements, with the introduction of a fly-tower, a full-size scenery dock twice as big as the stage, and substantial wing space on both sides of the stage. The increased playing space will allow the theatre to present dance for the first time.

"Actors and audience are all agreed that the thing that works about the Byre is the intimacy between the stage and the auditorium," says Ken Alexander. "You can get away with smaller and more intricate detail in this space. The new theatre will have a similar relationship, although it encircles slightly more."

Additionally, there will be a studio space which will be used for rehearsals, workshops and meetings of the busy Byre Writers' Group. Changing rooms, administration offices and workshops will be positioned together, somewhere above where the cafe used to be. The house next door to the theatre is being demolished, giving the architects a third more ground space to play with.

At the moment, the company is able to skimp by with four full-time staff, but there'll be no such economies with a big new building to run. The plan is that some costs will be offset against increased revenue from the bar and restaurant, but the experience of other theatres suggests that benefits and expenditure are impossible to estimate accurately. "Costs are likely to increase because we've got a more interesting space to work with, with more possibilities," says Alexander. "The Scottish Arts Council recognises that increased costs will be an issue, but it's making no promises."

The director does not regard the project simply in terms of bricks and mortar. He sees it as a chance to develop his programme, reach new audiences, and make artistic connections previously denied to him. He's treating this homeless period as a chance to spread the Byre's name abroad, taking the forthcoming Worzel Gummidge to Kirkcaldy after St Andrews, premiering Jan Nathanson's Californian Poppy on the Edinburgh Fringe, and initiating a community touring policy that will continue even after the new building is opened.

Once back in Abbey Street, he aims to cater to a range of audiences - not only the holiday-makers who account for up to 70 per cent of his summer trade, and not only the typical subscription audience. Like many a disciple of the late Joan Knight, Alexander is a populist to the last, and he makes no apologies for giving people what they want.

"You can programme in an exciting manner and be popular too," he says, already commissioning writers with a view to increasing the national stock of popular plays. "Rather than just doing a summer season, as we have done in recent years, we will be able to extend the programme of our own work, and have a greater ability to attract touring work. The potential at St Andrews is great because you've got three distinct audiences - tourists, students and local residents. In terms of the programme we'll be aiming to get as diverse an audience as possible. We'll have more flexibility in the spaces we can use, and therefore the range of activities we can programme. I hope we'll have the stability to programme Whistle Down the Wind one week, and Trainspotting the next."
© Mark Fisher, 1997 and 2013

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