With a number of theatres available in and around the town, Tunbridge Wells culturists are spoiled for choice. Brian McAteer, theatre director of the Assembly Hall Theatre, talks about how culture has changed in recent years, why being so close to London is a blessing and the potential of some exciting new plans for the future of the popular venue
Tell us about the background of the theatre and how you got involved
The Assembly Hall is 75 years old. I got involved through working as a special projects manager for leisure services. I’ve always been interested in theatre, but more as a participant rather than potentially a practitioner, or indeed somebody who facilitates shows. It was slightly serendipitous and I kind of fell into it.
What does your role entail?
I’m not employed to be an artistic director, I’m employed to deliver a balanced programme that hits lots of hotspots within the community, but also delivers on a balanced budgetary level; that’s the reality. Lots of municipal or civic venues have come to realise they can’t just programme what they want at whatever cost, it doesn’t work like that. We all have to manage the bottom line.
Where do you receive your funding?
We’re no different from any other commercial organisation in the marketplace. The key difference is that we do have some security around the fact we’re owned, funded and managed by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, which means we do have a bit of a safety net. That safety net’s probably not quite what it was, but it is what it is and you have to manage and deliver accordingly. The reason it exists is because we’re responding to a community need.
What challenges do you face?
The first is the physical constraints of this building. It’s a serious compromise because it was originally built to meet a lot of different needs like ballroom dancing and dinners, but unfortunately the market has moved on. Most of that ‘flat floor’ capability has gone, and over the last ten years, we’ve focussed much more on theatrical ambience; we’re trying to create a theatrical experience for people. The building just about does that, but it’s not without a lot of work on the part of everyone behind the scenes.
Does being so close to London pose a problem?
We could be terribly pessimistic about the fact we’re 50 minutes from one of the best capitals in Europe in terms of cultural activity; regardless of what you’re interested in, there’s anything you want in London. That’s a positive for us because it means people in this area have got real choice, so if we have a West End show playing, they don’t have to go to London; they can come here and pay less.
Is the Assembly Hall an integral part of the town’s culture and economy?
It’s not an accident that commercial operators have opened around this bit of the town; they’ve opened here because of places like ourselves and Trinity. On any night, if we’re sold out, we’re taking 1,000 people into the town and pushing 1,000 people back out again. It adds to our vibrant night economy, and the knock-on benefit is that people feel safer; the busier a town centre is, the safer people feel.
Do theatres need to offer more than just plays and shows now to survive?
There’s a certain financial necessity around being able to offer a breadth and depth of programme, whatever that is. Where the market is at the moment, the more you can offer and the more income streams you can identify as a venue, the better. Some of the bigger stuff can subsidise some of the stuff that’s less commercially viable.
Has the recession had an impact on you?
It did in 2008 and 2009, but our numbers are very much on the up again. In the last two years, our average ticket price has increased quite considerably, because we’re taking in more in-demand West End shows. However the problem that gives you is, as the ticket price goes up, people start to notice much more value for money, which quite often isn’t just about the quality of the product onstage; it’s about theatrical ambience. It refocuses people’s minds not necessarily to the product, but the surroundings, which we’re investing in this summer.
Can you elaborate on that?
There’s £1.5million available to do refurbishment work. However, all that is recognised as very much a short-term measure not a 20-year solution, because running in parallel is an initiative around looking at theatre provision more strategically and trying to look at potentially a new venue – it’s out with consultants and we’re waiting on a report. Cabinet have agreed it, but it has to be approved at full council.
Are things looking positive?
For the first time since I’ve been here, there’s a more settled, strategic view of entertainment provision in Tunbridge Wells in terms of how that’s addressed, both in relation to the economic development issues and in terms of the town centre, and that’s more positive than I believe it has ever been. I’ve been here nearly 20 years and have been around the block more than once on venues and refurbishment and this is the first time I believe it has actually got off first base.
In what ways has the Assembly Hall changed since you started?
In the time I’ve been here, I’ve put a much greater focus on delivering one-week shows. When I first became involved, there seemed to be an accepted convention that the theatre couldn’t deliver those, but I felt we could. I didn’t come from a theatre background, so was therefore fairly ignorant of some of the potential constraints, which meant my view was very different. I was the person who always said, ‘Why not?’ I also try and make sure my team are people who challenge me. We all get used to what we do and sometimes we need people to sit down and say, ‘Why can’t we do this?’ That’s really what it’s about; accepting that things are always changing. It’s very much the case in this business.
Has that business as a whole changed as well?
Regardless of advances in technology, the show requirements in terms of equipment are getting infinitely bigger, even though it’s all much more intelligent, so there are always compromises around that. Shows have also become more sophisticated, which puts certain limits on venues. We’re at a point where we have started looking very much forward in terms of where the market might be in four or five years’ time.
How is our town’s culture in general?
Tunbridge Wells is a fairly culturally rich area. Places like ourselves, the museum and Trinity all complement each other and we’re all in exactly the same marketplace, which is big enough for all of us. Any events, however big or small, are all significant in terms of creating that rich cultural tapestry. Ultimately, it’s about choice, and if there are a sufficient number of events for people to go to, regardless of what your interest is, you can do it. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t be better, because we can; we can be infinitely better than we are now and much more focussed on a better quality.
What about theatre culture?
Lots of venues in Kent have had considerably larger subsidies than ours for many years, so in this period where everything is shrinking, a lot of them are having huge issues continuing to develop their programme. That hasn’t affected us a lot, because we’ve always been reasonably financially fit. That’s a positive thing, but the reality is, the environment within which we work is shrinking. Civic venues wouldn’t exist unless there were civic venues within local authorities, because if you did it purely on business principles, in terms of the private sector, you probably wouldn’t open the door.
Where do you see the theatre going in the future?
The single best thing that could happen to us is a new venue. Where Tunbridge Wells is in the marketplace, I’m absolutely confident that it could survive commercially – it’s certainly desired, if not demanded by customers. If you look at the town’s cultural offering, I don’t believe there’s any dissension. Most people recognise the need for it and it would be delivered much more successfully and sustainably within a new building.
THE ASSEMBLY HALL THEATRE
Average ticket price £15
Average attendance Over 150,000 per annum
Seating capacity Up to 1,061
Number of events 300 per annum
Home to Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra, Tunbridge Wells Operatic and Dramatic Society and Royal Tunbridge Wells Dance Festival
Tel 01892 530 613