THEATRE ADAPTS AND EVOLVES IN ORDER TO SUCCEED
While we have more than our fair share of theatre entertainment in Tunbridge Wells, you never have to go too far to discover even more. Andrew Eyre and Lisa Whitbread, general manager and business development manager respectively of the Stag Theatre in Sevenoaks, tell us how the venue has adapted to host a variety of events and why it remains at the heart of the town’s community.
Tell us about how you both got involved with the Stag
Andrew: It closed in 2008 [owing to commercial failure]. I’m a town councillor here in Sevenoaks and we couldn’t afford to let the Stag close, so we started putting a business plan together and reopened in January 2009. It was a mad rush, there’s no question. I was chairman of trustees and about two and a half years ago, I took over as general manager.
Lisa: I joined in 2013 to look at new ways of bringing in revenue. We’ve specifically targeted promoting ourselves much wider, so we’re now getting national companies coming in much more and people are hearing about us and booking with us. Because of the way we work, where people pay to hire the theatre, their return on the ticket sales is much higher, so lots of companies are booking and walking away with a much better profit, which is encouraging them to come back.
How has the theatre changed and developed?
Andrew: One of the things I changed was to look further afield in terms of marketing and where to get work. Historically, this place has been very much a local amateur theatre, and I very rapidly came to the conclusion that it couldn’t survive purely on amateur groups. It was a case of sorting the place and then getting Lisa in to start looking elsewhere. The last year has been really successful, we’ve got a wider variety of genres out there and, more importantly, a wider variety of different companies.
Where do you get your funding?
Andrew: We’re 97 per cent grant-free, but the remaining 3 per cent is the grant we get from the town council. We create our own money and we do get sponsorship, but a lot of it isn’t real money – it’s benefit in kind and getting the word out there. We have to create money through the door, otherwise the place shuts down, and that’s what we’re doing successfully as part of our community ethos. I want people to be successful so they come back. There’s an increasing number of people coming back and our job is to keep doing that.
Are you looking beyond theatre to bring in revenue?
Lisa: We’re having more corporate events now, with big companies hiring as a venue, which is a new way of looking at the Stag, but it’s bringing in different people and a different way of running the theatre – being able to promote ourselves in that way helps show how we’re moving forward and that we’re forward thinking. That’s why the Stag is on the up, because it’s evolving. It has to do that and it has to make use of everything we have. The facilities are great and the more people we get in, the more people see that.
How big a role do you play in the local community?
Lisa: We work very closely with local businesses – some of them will donate money and do fundraising, which helps pay for the various parts of the building. Other organisations want to advertise or sponsor various events – they just want to become partners with the Stag. We’ve got some really good contacts now. It’s just growing that sense of the Stag being part of Sevenoaks and the wider area. It makes total sense to work with local businesses and to actually do what we can to help the local economy, because if people don’t come here, they won’t come to the Stag either. The more people know about us, the more we’ll survive, we can’t exist on our own.
Andrew: It’s making Sevenoaks the centre of a night out and that’s one of the reasons the town council took it over – they have the lease and we run as a charity. Right at the beginning, we set out not to take national grant money and we’re making money, which we put back into the building. Although, we couldn’t have done it without the major grant we received to begin with. On top of the grants and donations we got, it needed about £15,000 of income, which we created, to make this project happen.
Is the Stag a profitable business?
Andrew: My commercial aim is to make a penny a year profit. We make between £3,000 and £5,000 profit a year, but that’s the basis of a not-for-profit organisation. It’s an 80-year-old building and a 30-year-old theatre, and it takes a lot of nudging along and improving to get to the position we’re in now. But it does mean we can offer a good service to people and we can make money. It’s a really good value venue and a successful show will make more money here than it will at other theatres.
Lisa: It’s part of making the most of the services and facilities you’ve got. It’s important for us to be seen as lots of different things to different people, it’s our way of remaining current and topical with what people need. In the way that business as an industry is changing, we need to change to stay part of that. It widens the partners we work with and means we’re not just working with artists and musicians but with very different types of people who want that wow factor and something different. That’s why we’re different and why it’s quite exciting to see the Stag moving in that way.
Has the recession had an impact on the theatre?
Andrew: We reopened in 2009 and we’ve been increasing every year since then. People wanted to go out and enjoy themselves and they took the decision not to travel to London, but to go local. The first couple of years were really quite buoyant.
What are your biggest money-spinners?
Andrew: It varies so much, we’d love to see more people come to every event. The money varies and it’s a different balance as to who’s on.
Is culture in the area thriving?
Lisa: We want all the shows to do well because that reflects well on us. Because culture’s so broad, that’s why we keep looking at the kind of show we put on and what different types of event we could put on, so we keep things fresh. People in this area are quite cultural and they do like to see different things, we need to respond to that.
Andrew: There is local culture, but there’s a problem that audiences don’t go and see it. High culture is such that it has survived historically on grants. As those grants fade away, the organisations putting on the culture have to reflect on how they’re going to continue. That involves getting their own grants, donations, members and cutting their cloth to fit. The audiences have to recognise that if they want to see stuff, they have to go and watch it. They can’t complain about nothing being on if, when it’s put on, they don’t go and see it.
Have you taken initiatives to achieve this?
Andrew: One of the things we did respond with was Stag Select. When I took the job, I committed to getting live transmission into the Stag. That’s another reflection of getting a different market because to go to the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne or the National Theatre, you have to get a train to London, get on the underground and then pay up to £200 a ticket. You can come here and see the same show live for £15. National Theatre goes down very well, which is why we know there’s a market for drama. The cinema will sell out to watch National Theatre and it’s getting people to look a bit broader.
Lisa: With the live broadcasts, you have that experience of watching a live show as if you were there and that means we’re starting to get people who would normally just go to live theatre going to the cinema.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
Andrew: Part of our difficulty sometimes is to get out that the Stag is here and the biggest challenge is getting the audience to know of the breadth of stuff we have. We have a challenge of getting out nationally to all the promoters and hirers. Part of our success is word of mouth, the parallel issue is the audience and getting people to know the Stag exists, that it’s a professional live cinema, a professional live theatre and a really nice place to go.
And your hopes for the future of the theatre?
Lisa: To keep going the way it’s going. The figures are going up and we’ll never stop looking at how things are working and how we can improve. Seeing the building full when there’s a show on is really magical and just having as many people as we can walking out with smiles on their faces is hugely satisfying.
Andrew: There’s a huge buzz about the place. My intention is not to throw it all up in the air and make big changes, it’s step by step.
THE STAG THEATRE
ADDRESS London Road, Sevenoaks, Kent TN13 1ZZ
TEL 01732 450 175
REGISTERED CHARITY NUMBER 1137420
SEATING CAPACITY 450
MONTHLY FOOTFALL 25,000
ADDITIONAL FACILITIES Two cinema screens, the Stag Plaza performance venue, the Stag Bar, the Stag Art Gallery Wall