When James Haddrell took on the directorship of Greenwich Theatre over ten years ago, he didn’t know if the company had a future at all. Here he charts its imaginative route to recovery.
When I was offered the role of Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre in 2007 I was thrilled. I was still only 30 and I was being offered the directorship of one of London’s largest off-West End theatres. The role was formally ratified at a trustees meeting and, having accepted, we moved on to the first order of business – whether or not to wind up the company.
This was not a surprise to me. Before taking on the role I had spent five years as marketing manager at the theatre, so I knew the struggles we were facing. And in persuading the trustees to continue trading, I knew the company was in for a long and difficult recovery.
How does a receiving house, apparently hostage to whatever shows happen to be on the road, forge an identity?
Back then, the theatre had an average annual income of around £1.2m, with 60% of that coming from grant funding. Despite that relatively large annual subsidy, the venue was carrying debts of approaching £250,000 and those debts were growing annually. Now the annual turnover remains around £1.2m, with grant subsidy only accounting for 10% of income.
This year we have officially cleared our deficit. The long process of recovery is not complete – we still struggle financially – but we have proved that despite shrinking subsidies, a theatre of our scale can still survive.
There is no single answer to reversing a theatre’s losses while reducing reliance on subsidy. However, among an array of difficult decisions, programming integrity has always remained at the top of the agenda.
Since its last moment of financial crisis in 1998, when it lost Arts Council England funding and closed for 18 months, the theatre has predominantly been a receiving house – and for me, one of the major challenges for any receiving house is creating an artistic identity. How does a venue, apparently hostage to whatever shows happen to be on the road, forge an identity?
Without that, audiences might only come intermittently if a particular show catches their attention. But with limited marketing budgets you need them to seek you out, and that will only happen if they know what you are and what they’re looking for.
Before my time as director, the company had grappled with the same challenge and had opted to produce a number of ambitious shows - but in doing so, it had plunged itself into further debt. Without a new approach, we would surely suffer from either dwindling audiences caused by paint-by-numbers programming, or guaranteed closure from over-ambitious in-house productions.
The answer came with the launch of one of the country’s most ambitious programmes of artist support. We started offering rehearsal space, mentoring, marketing support and a sympathetic ear to ten of the country’s most exciting young companies. In return, those companies presented work here.
Often we offered small guarantees for performing with us, so the companies weren’t over-exposed financially. While we provided them with a chance to move from the fringe to a mid-scale London venue, we also generated a programme of new theatre with a clear artistic identity.
The ten years that followed were not easy. The global financial crisis hit us like so many other theatres, but instead of reducing our programming we increased it, and we cut our ticket prices. We knew it was essential to retain audiences, even if they were paying less, so that when the recession came to an end we still had relationships with those people.
For a period of time we also had to reduce staffing, which meant that our commercial director and I worked long hours, replacing contract cleaners, providing front-of-house management and doing the marketing ourselves.
In 2015 our local authority funding took its worst hit to date – a cut of 62%. However, low ticket prices and quality programming had bred loyalty and an appetite for artistic risk, so we increased programming again. We converted our old café into a studio theatre, offering a 60-seat space alongside the main house. We secured a private donation of £3,000 and a local authority contribution of £7,000, and beyond that we did it ourselves, painting the walls and installing lighting and sound. Now we have two spaces championing the work of emerging theatre makers, and this autumn there is barely a week in the season without R&D taking place on a new show in the studio.
In times of financial difficulty, programming integrity at a venue has to sit alongside cautious financial management. We would have closed without the reduction in risk attached to certain programming and producing, but without maintaining the level of programming and finding an identity for that programming, audiences would have drifted away leading to the same result.
We are not out of the woods. We still have a small staff and discussions about how we finance our aspirations are common. Sometimes companies have to wait longer than we might hope for payments, but we are paying fees to young companies who want to make work. Lyn Gardner called upon the NPOs of this country to go beyond providing space and actually giving money to emerging companies. We are not on the NPO list and yet we are doing just that.
For a venue to survive, audiences have to have a sense of the kind of shows that they present. For theatre in general to survive, emerging theatre companies need financial and strategic support to grow and develop. If the past ten years have proved anything to me, it is that supporting others is the only way to support yourself.