/ Nicola Walls / Arts & Culture

There is nothing more enlightening than to listen in to a client speaking about their building that you have contributed to. At the recent annual Theatres Trust Conference Colin Marr director of the Inverness Eden Court Theatre spoke on the subject of theatres in use and in particular his experience of its redevelopment. Here is a precis of his thoughts which Nicola shared with the office.

Introducing the theatre, Colin Marr described its two theatres, two cinemas, two studios, its historic chapel and some beautiful meeting rooms. Drawing its audiences from throughout the Highlands of Scotland (which is almost exactly the same size as Wales), it has regulars traveling three hours from Thurso. He continued:

“Every year it hosts over 450 live performances, 1900 cinema screenings, 1800 arts education events. For a city population of 60,000 and a regional population of 200,000 there are an impressive 160,000 theatre-goers, 70,000 visiting the cinema and 110,000 education attendances, a grand total of 350,00 every year.

The theatre opened originally in 1976 with a single 800 seat auditorium – people came only at night and as a result there was a heavy reliance on public subsidy – around 50% of the turnover. The books were balancing but constrained by a building that had been built for a different time, was completely full but which was literally falling down.

The £23 million capital project transformed the building to deliver activity all day every day. Over 60 classes a week in dance, drama, digital media for all ages and all standards - all income generating – and all delivering people to the building who inevitably buy catering and are exposed to the centre marketing. A massive in increase in cinema audiences – making a good economic contribution and providing good audience crossover. An expanded theatre programme – smaller theatre – allowing more artistically challenging work. A hugely increased catering trade. A thriving and growing conference and meeting business – now making a significant financial contribution. A building which is significantly cheaper to run than it used to be.

Within three years of re-opening over 70% of people in Highland had attended a ticketed event and another 12% had attended for another reason, resulting in delivering more theatre with the extra income and the reliance on public subsidy dropping significantly."

So those are the rewards but what were the risks and the lessons learned. Colin put forward ten key points to think about:

Careful business planning is essential as this informs every decision in the project. "If something doesn’t add up, if the research doesn’t support it or the audience projections look impossible – then you shouldn’t be building it."

Involve your staff at every stage as this can then help with any later difficult decisions.

Try and employ dedicated project staff and team - which can be difficult as a ‘one time client’. It would be ideal to gather people around the project that will also encourage your own staff’s expertise to contribute to the project.

Careful management of cost reporting, particularly with regard to any widely publicised early budget figures.

An acceptance that key project staff may leave before the project concludes, leaving new staff to deal with residual issues.

The time to train new staff should ideally be factored in to any opening schedule.

The need to have a brilliant programme to re-open with – but this can be challenging when the completion date is changing – and endeavour to secure bookings for events and conferences.

The project is never over when you complete the works and the building re-opens. There will usually be snagging and contractual issues to deal with and it will take time to get fully back to your ‘day job’.

There will be times when you wonder why you ever wanted to do this, but eventually it feels worthwhile, when "everything is adding up again, our reliance on public subsidy is significantly reduced, I can see clear routes to generating further income growth and all of that is allowing us to deliver more theatre, more creative learning and ultimately more cultural and social well being."

Colin concluded with a single motivating piece of advice.

"You can see our beautiful multicoloured building. Just as we were about to submit the planning application to our somewhat conservative council I was taken aside by an older, senior councillor and advised for the bolder sections to submit the plans in black and white with a note – this wall be yellow, this wall will be purple etc. – in his words – “that way every councillor will imagine their favourite yellow and the plans will pass” – it worked a treat"