How Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds went from pandemic darkness to becoming an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation
Nearly three years ago, with the country firmly in the grip of the first Covid-19 lockdown, Owen Calvert-Lyons moved to the region to take on his new role as artistic director and chief executive of the Theatre Royal, in Bury St Edmunds.
At the time the theatre was dark, with no prospect of reopening to paying audiences.
Fast forward to now and the organisation is ‘hugely optimistic’ for its future.
The theatre has just rejoined Arts Council England’s national portfolio for the first time in eight years – becoming an NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) and receiving annual funding of £220,000 until 2026.
But the journey has not been smooth sailing.
When Owen arrived all the theatre’s staff – apart from a five-strong core team, including himself – were furloughed.
“We had no prospect of opening the theatre and we knew we were likely to be facing a large financial deficit at whichever point we did manage to open,” said Owen.
“It did feel like a big task ahead, but when you’re new in post nothing seems impossible, so in a way it was a really good moment to roll my sleeves up and see how we were going to be able to get the theatre up and open.
“The first task was to make some art.”
That art was Walking Stories, a project over the summer of 2020 which invited local people to tell the hidden stories about where they live.
The project was so well received it fired the team’s ambition for its next project: to stage a production of Charles Dickens’ classic The Christmas Carol outside, on Angel Hill – a location of significance for the author – over the 2020 festive season.
With the theatre’s annual pantomime production inevitably postponed due to Covid-19, A Christmas Carol still felt like an impossible task. Yet despite all the pandemic restrictions and surging coronavirus cases, the team ploughed on.
“We felt it was really important. Local artists had had no money and no income – with many missing out on Government funding schemes – and all were desperate to work. It felt important to make art not only for the community but to employ local artists,” said Owen.
“Despite everything, we got A Christmas Carol on stage. Audiences loved it and loved having art on their doorstep. Somehow we managed to keep it on stage and avoided the next lockdown. We were delighted. We couldn’t believe we had done it.”
In the meantime, the theatre had also launched its ‘The Show Must Go On’ fund-raising campaign, which eventually raised £70,000.
“That £70,000 was so vital,” said Owen. “It was just extraordinary, especially when we knew those donations had come from individuals.
“We had audience members pressing £10 notes into the hands of ushers as they walked past during A Christmas Carol. Those donations meant so much as they came with such love – and at that time the team needed that support to know just how vital this theatre is to this town.”
With the country plunged back into full lockdown at the start of 2021, the theatre was not able to reopen to audiences until June 2021 – 14 months after it went dark – with its own in-house production of Around the World in 80 Days.
Reopening felt like another ‘Herculean task’, according to Owen.
“The whole building had been shut and while getting it started again we discovered the boiler had given up the ghost in that time. We had to find £60,000 for a new boiler.
“All sorts of other things had just stopped working behind the scenes – it is an old building and these things happen,” said Owen.
“We also had to figure out how front of house could work with all the restrictions and fit a new air system.”
The Grade-I listed theatre was designed and built in 1819 by William Wilkins, the architect behind London’s National Gallery.
The full staff team – the theatre employs 24 full-time staff, casual staff and a ‘wonderful’ team of 140 volunteers – arrived back at work in April 2021.
“It was joyous, but then they had this massive task in front of them,” said Owen.
“We were anxious over whether we were doing the right thing by reopening – but there was a feeling in the team that we would do anything to keep our audiences safe.”
He described opening night of Around the World in Eighty Days as an ‘extraordinary moment’.
“Walking on stage that opening night I was met by an audience that was so warm and full of love and which understood the journey we had been on,” he said.
“When you make art you want it to be wonderful. It is like making a dish – you put effort into it and you want people to enjoy it. It was wonderful to see the audience meet and enjoy Around the World in Eighty Days.”
With the theatre reopen from the summer of 2021 and audiences starting to return, the creative team had to start thinking about the next festive season – with the theatre’s survival potentially depending on it.
Owen describes the annual pantomime as the ‘economic engine of the Theatre Royal’.
He said: “After no pantomime in 2020 we had to get Cinderella on in 2021 and it had to stay on for as long as possible. If it didn’t, it was a matter of great jeopardy for the theatre.
“If we’d had a second year without pantomime, probably the theatre would have ceased as by then we had used so much of our reserve.”
Luckily, 2021’s Cinderella was an ‘amazing experience’.
“It was the pantomime that ended up being the last panto standing,” said Owen.
“As there was another surge (in Covid-19 cases) pantomimes across the country were closing and each week we thought it could be us. We managed to run all the way to the last performance.
“That kind of luck has been there throughout.”
But the organisation was not yet out of the woods.
“Cinderella really got us back on our feet, but we needed a second success in 2022. Therefore, Robin Hood was almost as important to us, and it absolutely smashed it,” said Owen.
“We had huge numbers of audiences and income. We are so proud of it. It has got us back on an even keel – it feels like we are able to build back.”
The theatre’s first in-house production of 2023 – The Children – has just closed and was another success.
“We do three in-house Theatre Royal productions a year, with the Wizard of Oz and Snow White – the 2023 pantomime – still to come this year. We are busy cooking up what’s next for April 2024," said Owen.
Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic staff were also working behind the scenes towards securing National Portfolio funding from the Arts Council.
The theatre last had national portfolio funding in 2015, but now it will receive £220,000 annually until 2026.
“We are very proud to be an NPO and long may that continue,” said Owen, adding that most of the national portfolio money would be used to fund the theatre’s creative learning operation, much of which was ‘decimated’ by the pandemic.
“When we reopened there were audiences desperate to come back but for our community programmes, there weren’t people wanting to return immediately,” said Owen.
“After the pandemic those groups needed to be built from scratch. It has taken until this moment to be back to full swing.”
The national portfolio money is weighted to use for the theatre’s community work – the creative learning is now core funded – and there are ambitions to grow it further.
Currently, the theatre is in the middle of a feasibility study to see if it can find or build a space large enough to host its community learning work and in-house rehearsals.
“We have a small envelope of land here and it doesn’t look like we have the room here,” said Owen.
“It has to be a big space and it needs to be wheelchair accessible and able to host school groups, while the footprint of the rehearsal area has to match the size of the theatre’s stage.
“We are hoping Greene King will support us as the owners of this building, and if there is anyone else who might be able to help, we would love to hear from them. Even if we could build into the garden next door, it would probably give us enough space.
“Finding rehearsal spaces and spaces for our community work is the biggest challenge we face.”
Another long-term goal of the theatre is to improve its partnership work.
“We have such great partnership work across East Anglia – we want to tell stories from this region,” said Owen.
“We have commissioned a new play – through our commissioning circle – about the witch trials in Bury St Edmunds, for 2025. It is an important project as it is about a dark period for our town and about violence against women. We are really excited about that project.
“It will be the first piece of original writing to be presented as an in-house production – a lot of our productions have been adaptations of classic stories. This is a completely original play and it feels like new territory.
“I think a Bury audience will appreciate it.”
As well as the theatre’s own community engagement work, it also welcomes the region’s long-standing community theatre companies – including the 120-year-old Bury St Edmunds Operatic and Dramatic Society and 64-year-old Irving Stage Company – into its ‘family’.
“The community companies are really important to us, they are made up of an extraordinary group of ordinary people participating in art,” said Owen.
“I love that this town has such a brilliant amateur sector. It is wonderful seeing professionals work but you can’t beat what a non-professional does – that’s someone doing it out of passion.
“The people performing those shows have another full-time job and then in the evenings they are putting their time and love into making art.
“The amateur and community companies will always have a home at Theatre Royal.”
But while the theatre is now on a more stable financial footing, it still faces a range of ‘hidden’ financial challenges, according to Owen.
“We have had three years of only spending money where it was vital, so there has been almost no investment in the infrastructure of the building, no investment in the technical equipment, our van is on its last legs – some things have been limping on and those things are hard to fund. Our lighting equipment is really out of date.
“The rising cost of energy is a huge challenge, inflation is hitting hard – productions cost more and it is more expensive for them to stay the same let alone grow,” said Owen.
“There are challenges ahead, but we are an ambitious team, we don’t want to stand still. The brave and exciting things we want to do come at a cost, but I am hugely optimistic.”