When Karen Simpson took the helm at Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal three years ago and peeked behind the curtain, the historic venue was in danger of careering towards its final act.
As she says, the country’s last surviving Regency playhouse was ‘on its knees’ with a £200,000 deficit and audiences had almost halved between 2007 to 2012.
Since then, she and her team have eliminated the deficit, boosted audience numbers and ensured the theatre plays a leading role on the community stage.
To get the theatre’s bright lights fizzing again, they refocused the venue’s hit parade of shows to serve all ages and tastes.
“That was the priority really - having almost cradle to the grave programming,” Karen remembers. “It was about building up relationships with really good solid touring companies that are known for their good quality work.
“Some of them had been to the Theatre Royal many years ago but it was about encouraging them back and audiences back in to give us another try.
“The job isn’t finished but what we’ve got to in three years is where we don’t have a deficit, we’re beginning to look now at projects we should have been doing - we’re undertaking major repairs this summer.
“Ultimately being much more customer focused in everything that we do. It isn’t about us - we’re managing this theatre for the people of this region.”
Over two years audience numbers have shot up by 30 per cent but Karen stresses that she is ‘not complacent’ about that figure.
“The base line was very low. I do know we’re heading absolutely in the right direction - the audience has gone up 20,000 people per year in those two years but I think there’s definite capacity for us to be aiming at another 20,000 people. I think we’re half way to where we should be.”
As well as broadening the programme, she has injected some drama into a usually sedate time for the theatre.
“We had our most successful week ever last August with an Agatha Christie show,” Karen says. “It was 97 per cent capacity right across the week and more people saw that drama than anything else.
“Bury is a beautiful town and a tourist place. I had been thinking if that can happen last year, we’re trying it a bit more this year.”
So next month they have lined up a whodunnit Rehearsal for Murder and children’s show Aliens Love Underpants. In early September, the theatre’s summer school returns with Kes and Suffolk Summer Theatres present The 39 Steps.
This is part of its recently launched new programme which runs until February. Highlights include Black Theatre Live’s Hamlet - the first time ever in Britain the Shakespeare tragedy will be staged by an all back cast, one man show Wisdom of a Fool about Norman Wisdom, comedian Julian Clary and music from Lesley Garrett.
The Theatre Royal is adapting Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Ballet Theatre UK presents Romeo and Juliet and this year’s panto is Beauty and the Beast. Casting for the panto is almost complete and former County Upper student Helen Slade has won a part.
“We’re looking at every aspect of how we operate and challenging and rethinking, are we doing it in the right way.
“If we’re going to move forward and do it with such small core funding, we’ve got to look at how we attract more audiences in every sphere of what we do and keep being rigorous about that. Also one thing the theatre has that is different to almost any other theatre in the country is that the relationship between this theatre and local businesses is so positive.
“It feels genuinely like the theatre is part of the infrastructure of Bury - it’s one of the planks in what makes it proud. I think many much better funded theatres would struggle to say that.”
That relationship is perhaps now more important than ever after the theatre suffered a £115,000 funding cut from the Arts Council last April. It has persevered with support from local authiorities - £125,000 from Suffolk County and £61,250 from St Edmundsbury Borough this year.
“They have been so supportive over the last few years - they’ve recognised the really serious challenges we’ve been facing in terms of trying to turn it around.”
Patrons and sponsors contribute £170,000 towards the theatre and there is support from councillors and the National Lottery for the theatre’s growing community work.
Indeed, the story of the Theatre Royal is one of survival - forged through its community links.
It was rescued by the town’s amateur dramatic societies 50-years-ago after being neglected as a barrel store - and the tale was the basis for the theatre’s hit anniversary play A Labour of Love last year.
That spotlight on the community is being strengthened with projects such as the Wisdom Club which has seen playwright Danusia Iwaszko run workshops at Suffolk Age UK’s Saxon House to explore the life stories of older people.
She will also write a play examining the joys and pitfalls of ageing.
Then there’s the theatre’s Children’s Festival which recently enjoyed its second year with about 56 performances over two weeks at the theatre and local schools.
The theatre has also worked with young people at the YMCA and women at the Womens Aid Centre.
“Both of those projects have had huge benefits,” Karen says. “One young man has joined our front of house team, one other young man was in our youth theatre production and is joining our summer school, another has been working with our head technician.
“At the Women’s Aid, we’ve been working with them since the beginning of this year - really developing their confidence to write about their experiences. We’ve had two presentations of their work. To quote their words ‘it’s been better than any therapy’.”
The theatre is also working with young adults with disabilities on a songwriting project and runs a Youth Theatre as well as a Young Associates Programme.
“We want to make sure the Youth Theatre structure is really accessible so if we do a really interesting project with a school and a young person suddenly becomes excited by theatre we want to be able to create a route straight away for that young person into out of school activities - whether it’s here at Theatre Royal or with another provider.
“My whole philosophy the reason I work in theatre is that it has to mean something that is part of the society wherever it is. I remember (playwright) John Godber coming here and saying a regional theatre has to find a way of expressing the voice of its region - that’s for me what a lot of the work we’ve been doing over the last 12 months has been about.”
The roots of this philosophy run deep through Karen’s career. Starting out as an actress, she realised ‘being told what to do’ was not for her so moved into production and directing.
She set up a touring theatre company in the North West and introduced work into schools.
“That’s been a running theme in my life - if you don’t get introduced to theatre when you’re at school it’s likely you will never be introduced to it unless you’re really blessed with parents that can take you. The importance of schools for me is paramount in terms of educating a new set of audience goers.”
She was education director at The Crucible Theatre, in Sheffield, before becoming artistic director of a company in Oxford, produced work of her own and then moved to Bury.
What’s next for the Theatre Royal?
“The aboslute priority is really focusing in now on what our audience needs are and how we develop those audiences and continue to give them a good time but actually get more people using this place.
“I actually want more facilities for Theatre Royal to be able to do what we’re doing. One of our biggest limiting factors is that we don’t have a rehearsal room here. It might take five or 10 years but we need somewhere when schools come in here they’ve got somewhere to work.
“In 2019 it’s the 200th anniversary of this place and that’s a big anniversary and there’s great potential to do some really important work on our stage and in the community. It needs to be fresh and look at things with contemporary eyes. It won’t be fusty and dusty - whatever we do it will be vibrant.”
For more on the theatre’s shows, visit www.theatreroyal.org