Since Christmas something rather remarkable has been happening in Worthing. Because of the cuts in Central Government spending, the Town has been looking under its moth-eaten bed to see what obsolete pieces of social detritus it can afford to get rid of.
The Town Council in its wisdom has decided that Theatre is the defunct slice of culture it can justify eliminating. We will all be too poor or depressed to go to the theatre anyway. And it’s costing us £1.2m a year of money we can ill-afford to spend.
In steps Jon Woodley from the central casting department of ‘The Big Society’. He is a charming young man of 26 with an equally engaging fiancée, Ann-Marie Clarke, who work in London as a Theatre Consultant and Programme Manager respectively. He is the son of Kim Woodley who runs the wonderful Broadwater Manor School which has itself produced several talented actors. Jonathan, then, is a scion of Worthing, brought up in its rich tradition of producing and repertory theatre. Jon was a member of the Worthing Youth Theatre based at the Connaught before going on to study Stage Management at the Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Art (RADA). After this he worked with amongst others, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre of Ireland, Bill Kenwright Ltd, and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
For three months he has laboured in the shadows taking the Council’s accounts and producing a startlingly good proposal to take the three theatres of Worthing into public trust ownership and running them quixotically for the ‘benefit of the community’.
This week the Council Cabinet met to discuss the future of the theatres. Jon Woodley was invited to share his thoughts. An amazing concession in its own right.
The idea is that the Trust would take the Town’s Connaught and Pavilion Theatres and the Assembly Rooms into a social enterprise-based Trust or Community Interest Company, if a way can be found to avoid the protracted EU legislation on Asset Transfer from public to community ownership.
This campaign, of course, fits the Government template for ‘The Big Society’ to a ‘t’. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary is already rubbing his hands together at the thought that a local community could take a significant public enterprise out of the public subsidy ditch and thrust it atop the Big Society hill, glittering and golden – and profitable.
A petition to save the theatres with 17,741 names was handed to the Meeting before proceedings began. That is approximately one-sixth of the population of Worthing or twenty-five full houses at the Assembly Hall.
The outcome of the meeting was three recommendations from the Cabinet Committee to do the following:
- A Committee has been formed: this committee comprises of 4 councillors who have volunteered to set up a group, specifically in order to work alongside the council staff in investigating and implementing the best route of putting in place an alternative body to manage / run Worthing Theatres.
- The Council staff (the Chief Executive and the Head of Arts and Leisure) have been requested to investigate the alternatives to a full EU procurement route, which include other alternatives such as Community Asset Transfer.
- The Councillors have requested that these actions take place as quickly as possible, in order to resolve the process and put in place another management (The Trust, for eg) as quickly as possible, to allow maximum preparation and transitional time for the Trust to be established and responsibility transferred.
A note of caution was sounded by Council officers who advised that Cabinet Members should not show favouritism with any party until it is legally established which method they can adopt.
Once the Council has made its recommendation about the direction it will take, Jon Woodley and the Trust will then register the Trust or charity in the correct form with Companies House.
Jon Woodley was understandably delighted with the outcome, “We have achieved everything we could at this stage. The support for the Theatres was overwhelming. Worthing is a passionate centre for theatre and the arts. We need the whole Community to get involved and help. We will need to raise funds in order to get the Trust up and running. This can be done via corporate sponsorship, donations in kind, membership schemes and advertising.”
In the meantime the political machine ticks over. The ‘Yes Minister’ contingent in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where Minister Eric Pickles (responsible for the promotion of ‘The Big Society’) was given a private briefing last week by Worthing Council Leader Paul Yallop, are already preparing press releases.
The Group has already been approached by a TV production company to take part in a series of documentaries about the Arts trying to survive the cuts, to be broadcast on BBC2 later in the year.
The interesting outcome is that at the meeting there was a single solitary soul in the room who wanted one tiny scintilla of the theatre provision in Worthing to touched. There were no Thatcher revivalists calling for the theatres to stand up and be profitable or die. Not a single councillor asked why they had been making a loss when the ticket sales were only averagely poor. Even the very organ of Government responsible for removing the funding for the Arts is looking like the cat who ate the cream at the prospect of ‘The Big Society’ being brought to life in little ol’ Worthing.
There are people already rehearsing their laissez-faire lines for television. A thought occurs. Cynically. Perhaps they should be on stage? They should stand up and be heard before the final curtain falls on theatre in Worthing.
The website is being set up: www.worthingtheatrestrust.co.uk
Go and visit your inheritance soon.