For theatre-goers, Tunbridge Wells and its surrounding area is a haven for some of the best amateur and professional productions. Showcasing a total of ten plays a year, the Oast Theatre in Tonbridge is a prime example. To find out about the venue, we spoke to chairman Laura Collins and publicity manager Maggie Hoiles about funding, the recession and bringing in a younger audience…
Tell us about the background of the theatre
Maggie: It started at the Mitre pub in Tonbridge. There were various groups of people meeting to put on productions – in fact, when I first joined, we used to rehearse there and only came here when we were in a production. There were people who had great foresight and could see there was potential when the Oast and the barn came up on the market.
Laura: When the theatre came up for sale, it was much more contained as an oast house and over the years it has been self-funded by putting on productions. Absolutely nobody gets paid here.
At one point, the barn and this building were separate entities; we managed to join them and have more rehearsal space, which cost about £400,000. We had £200,000 ready to spend ourselves because we knew that that was coming up; we were doing shows and costume hire and the bank had worked with us for a number of years and had seen the work here expand. They’ve been very happy to go on board with us and we’re well on our way to paying it back.
Where do you get your funding?
Maggie: We hire the venue out for yoga classes, children’s music parties and franchises looking for a venue, but it’s generally in the day because it’s so busy at night with all the rooms used for rehearsal. Laura: What makes us so different is that this is almost like a pod; we’re self-reliant, we’re self-funding and therefore we can let it out for small bits and pieces.
Maggie: We have associates who pay a certain amount to go in the programme every month; we do an evening for them and they come and see the play. They get so many free tickets a year and they’re very loyal. When it started off, people raved; they were so enterprising and they raised the money to buy this place; it was quite amazing.
Are you successful in terms of engaging your audience with the theatre’s productions?
Laura: More often than not, we sell out for the week. On the first Saturday night you get a good house, Sunday afternoons are really popular because it’s on at 3pm. On Monday you might see the people who aren’t too sure, but then by about Tuesday or Wednesday, they’re suddenly buying tickets. Maggie: Some people wait for others to see it before they book they haven’t heard of it. Some plays are harder, but we feel we should have a range of drama and we’re therefore prepared to weather some that aren’t so popular, because we feel we need to attract a younger audience.
Laura: We need to attract different ages, cultures and people who can’t get up to the West End to see different things. It’s done in a different way and it makes people come to things they wouldn’t normally see.
Maggie: With the price of tickets, even if you came and it wasn’t particularly your taste, you would talk about it and it hasn’t cost you a load of money, whereas, if you go to the West End, it does.
How important is it to attract a younger audience?
Maggie: We need an audience for the future; we have a very active youth theatre and we’ve tried to get them on board. I’m not saying they’re our audience, but by doing that, they tell people to come, so our youth is our future. They go away to university and don’t necessarily come back – on that basis, we hope we get people from other sources. We do a number of things; we’ve set up a marketing group to focus particularly on where we advertise, and use social media. I can see a younger element coming in already. Social media has helped us, not only for the audience, but also for casting.
Laura: Apart from the audience, we also need actors, so it’s a two-way street. If we can get a younger age group of actors, they bring friends.
In what ways do you go about bringing younger people in?
Maggie: We go into schools and fix visits for the children to come here. They come and are told
all about lighting and sound. They also meet the director of the current play, who tells them about the play and the set. They then get put into groups, taken on tours of the theatre and we’ll also do some sort of workshop. We’ve been doing that for quite a while and it’s very popular. It’s a great day for them and goes down well from their point of view with Ofsted. It’s good for them to be out in the wider community.
Do you have any plans to introduce cinema to the theatre?
Maggie: It’s definitely the future; the trouble is finding a space to do it. It doesn’t need a lot of space and we’ve got the equipment, so in the winter we could do it at 3pm, and in the summer we could do it on a Sunday evening. It’s in the pipeline and it will happen – there’s always so much going on here, but it’s definitely on the agenda.
What brings in the most money for you?
Maggie: Shows and wardrobe. Our wardrobe department is absolutely incredible, because they often kit out a complete production, provide all the costumes, and their knowledge is second to none. They have the talent to design costumes and make them.
Are there any areas where you feel things could be improved?
Laura: It’s bums on seats at shows, really, and getting the audience for lesser known plays.
Has the recession had an impact on the theatre?
Maggie: Funnily enough, we were doing the building during the worst time of the recession. We took some seats out and had some small productions, which kept the money coming in, so – touch wood – it didn’t affect us. We have a pretty loyal membership of more than 1,000 and don’t have to pay for rehearsals or outside services. When we had the extension done, we had our own project manager who was on site looking out for us and did a lot of the fitting out.
Laura: We’re also very good at recycling; all the old seats have gone to auction so we’ve got some income. We just refurbished the bar area, and Tonbridge Football Club, one of our associate members, gave us £500 for all the old stuff.
Do you get a positive response from your volunteer base?
Laura: It’s very enthusiastic. From time to time we have a blip because you need to find people’s talents.
Maggie: What’s so good is, if something goes wrong, everybody rallies to keep it all running. It just shows you that, every time something happens and you need somebody – which is inevitable when people have been doing it for many years – someone else comes along. It’s the thing about this place; everybody just gets stuck in if there’s a problem. Laura: One of the things I’m so pleased has happened in my time as chairman is that we haven’t just got one person any more; it’s a group. We’re not firefighting as much as we used to because people are grouping round and we all pitch in. The different talents people don’t realise they have are amazing.
Is local culture thriving?
Laura: I think it’s very mixed, really. We’re very blessed in this area, because there’s so much culture on our doorstep. There are certain weeks I could be out every night going to see something. You don’t have to go to the West End.
What are your hopes for the Oast going forward?
Laura: To carry on as it is, but we would like to see the younger people coming through because of the future.
Maggie: We need the younger people. Not to just do plays, we want them to be part of the club. We’re seeing more, but we need a younger lot to do sound, lighting and keep the place running. For a lot of the older members, there’s a social element as well, because you needn’t ever be on your own. There’s always something to do and bringing people together is a very important part of this club, which we should never, ever lose. Whatever you’re doing here, you do feel it’s got a special atmosphere, and I would never want to lose that. We want it to stay like that, but with a younger element coming through with new ideas who can keep us up to date and will take over jobs and be prepared to get stuck in. If you don’t get that, you won’t keep the passion, and that’s what we have to do.
THE OAST THEATRE FACTS:
ADDRESS: London Road, Tonbridge, Kent TN10 3AN
TEL: 01732 363 849
REGISTERED CHARITY NUMBER: 227035
SEATING CAPACITY: 116
TICKETS FROM: £10 (non-members)
ANNUAL PRODUCTIONS: Ten
ANNUAL MEMBERSHIPS FROM: £5
ADDITIONAL SERVICES: Costume, facility and props/furniture hire
MEMBER OF: The Little Theatre Guild of Great Britain (southern region)