Thursday, June 21, 2012

Exeter's burning theatre dreams

Today's Express and Echo contains three letters noting that Exeter City Council has plans for the redevelopment of the decaying Bus Station site: plans that do not include the possibility of a 1000-seater theatre for the city.

Before considering the merits of this proposal, one should note Exeter's poignant history in relation to theatre. Three of its theatres, all situated close to the current Bus Station site, were destroyed by fire in the 19th century.

A tragic history

As the excellent Exeter Memories website recounts, The New Theatre in Bedford Street was very successful, one highlight being Edmund Kean's production of The Merchant of Venice. But the building lasted only 30 years, destroyed in 1820 when a gas-lit chandelier set fire to the rafters.
The New Theatre (1787-1820),
Bedford Street

This building was replaced by the first Exeter theatre to be called The Theatre Royal. As with many Victorian theatres, the new invention limelight was installed. Alas, the oxygen-hydrogen mix needed for limelight was a big fire hazard, and the building was destroyed by fire in 1885.
The first Theatre Royal (1821-1885),
Bedford Street

A new 1500-seater Theatre Royal, designed by Charles Phipps, was built at the top of Longbrook Street. This building had a short life, and a tragic end. The story of the worst theatre fire in British history is told at Exeter Memories, the BBC and the Arthur Lloyd website. 186 died.

The second Theatre Royal (1886-7),
Longbrook Street

The Exeter Theatre Fire of 1887 was one of the events that led to Parliament introducing strict fire regulations for all British theatres. The legal requirement for a safety curtain is an example.

The Exeter Theatre Fire of 1887

The replacement theatre, seating around 1000, was built in the same place in Longbrook Street, with Sir Henry Irving providing input into the design, and it opened in 1889.

The third Theatre Royal (1889-1962),
Longbrook Street
The Arthur Lloyd website notes:
"This, the third Theatre Royal in Exeter, had a long and successful career, staging everything from Music Hall, Drama, and Ballet to Pantomime...
However, like so many Theatres around the Country, by the 1950's the Theatre was converted for use as a Cinema and by 1962 it had closed down completely.
The Theatre was demolished the same year, 1962, and an office building was constructed on the site."
In this potted history of Exeter theatre destruction, we should also probably note the building that stood for over 100 years where Boots is now, very close to the location of the Theatre Royal. Concerts were held there 1820-1908, when it was known as the Royal Public Rooms. As The Hippodrome, it was a 1000-seater theatre 1908-1929, a music hall venue where Charlie Chaplin is said to have performed. It then became the Plaza Cinema, but was destroyed in the Blitz of 4 May 1942.

Victoria Hall (1873-1919) in Queen Street had a similar changing function from 2000-seater public hall to theatre to cinema, before burning down in 1919. Meanwhile the 1000-seater Queen's Hall (1912-40) in Paris Street became the Palladium cinema in 1921 and didn't survive the Blitz.

Incidentally, not really theatre, but looking at the variety of venues used in Exeter for pop and rock, I was amazed to discover visits by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison and the Walker Brothers.

Today's Exeter theatre

In 2012 we have no large theatre, but in some ways a more flourishing theatre scene than ever:

Tomorrow's Exeter theatre?

Lyn Gardner of The Guardian wrote in April, in an article entitled "The future of theatre? Look towards Exeter"...
"Exeter offers an opportunity to see how a non-building-based producing outfit, Kaleider, led by Seth Honnor, formerly of Theatre Bristol, might deliver a new artistic vision by working in tandem with: existing buildings such as the Northcott and the Phoenix; companies such as Theatre Alibi; young, unfunded upstarts such as the Bike Shed; as well as its University and organisations such as Wide Awake Devon. The money it gets over three years will be used to animate the city (a participatory project called Ancient Sunlight will take place over four days at Easter 2015) and take part in a collaborative artistic conversation with local artists and audiences about the kind of work they want to make and see. The challenges for Kaleider will be considerable, but its successful bid demonstrates that the Arts Council is prepared to be bold. Bravo – and the best of luck."
I'm not sure. I don't think it's an either-or. The productions of Exeter's small theatres happen to suit my tastes. But one of today's letters in the Express and Echo points out that we don't get The Lion King, The Mousetrap or Oliver. Plymouth and Bristol get the big productions and concert orchestras because they have the theatres of the necessary size. Another makes the point that we are already well served by shops and swimming pools. A third recalls the Theatre Royal and its status as a cultural focal point.

The leader of Exeter City Council, Pete Edwards, rejects the idea of a 1000+ seater theatre in Exeter, on the basis that Exeter is too small. He is quoted as saying "We have a big theatre in Plymouth and if we had one similar in Exeter I think it would destroy both."

So on the one hand we have the argument that touring companies wouldn't go to both Exeter and Plymouth, and that audiences would be too small here. And on the other hand, we have the argument that a theatre able to attract national and international touring companies would bring more visitors and prestige to Exeter, and enhance the cultural and economic life of the city in the evening.

Having originally being strongly in favour of a new theatre, I put some of these points on Twitter to Councillor Paul Bull, who is a theatre sound designer. He makes a powerful case that it's not the right time for this kind of initiative.

I'm still not sure: I think it'd be good to have a study of the economic viability. But I'm hoping Paul will blog about the current state of theatre in Exeter at some point, because he knows far more about this subject than I do. But in the meantime, I will leave you with some collated tweets of his thoughts on #Theatre4Exeter:

Storify: Paul Ball on #Theatre4Exeter

Update 24 June:

I've received via Twitter some positive responses to this post. I was particularly pleased to get this from Seth Honnor:

I'd also like to highlight Ignite: Exeter's Festival of Theatre 2012, which begins this week.

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