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White Rock Theatre - Antony Mair

Dark future for White Rock Theatre? (Photo: Antony Mair)

Changes on the cards for White Rock Theatre?

The role of Hastings’s White Rock Theatre is to be considered in a review being undertaken by the council, as the current management team’s contract comes to an end. And the public will have a say in its future. Toby Sargent reports and offers a personal view.

Hastings Borough Council has announced plans for a “formal and wide-ranging options appraisal of the future operation of the White Rock Theatre (WRT), the town’s largest indoor entertainment venue.” The work will take place in the context of the the Masterplan for the Town and the White Rock Area. One clear objective, however, is to “ensur(e) comprehensive and sustainable cultural provision going forward.”

Current contract expires in 2019 

The move coincides with the expiry of the council’s current contract with HQ Theatres & Hospitality (HQT&H) who have managed the 1,066-capacity theatre on behalf of the local authority since 2009. The contractors will continue to manage the venue – and play a part in the appraisal – while it takes place.

Kenneth Broberg plays Gershwin accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Hastings Piano Concerto Competition 2017

Deputy council leader Kim Forward, whose portfolio includes regeneration for the town, said: “The importance of the WRT as the main cultural venue for Hastings is highlighted in the recently completed White Rock Masterplan. Our current management contract with HQ Theatres & Hospitality ends in January 2019, and the council’s annual subsidy cannot continue beyond then.”

“The importance of cultural provision”

“But we also recognise how important the White Rock Theatre is to Hastings and the local community, so we need to start planning ahead now. The ‘options appraisal’ will help us understand the possible future uses of the site. This work should be completed by late autumn 2017, giving us time to put plans in place for beyond January 2019.”

Julian Russell, CEO of HQ Theatres & Hospitality, added: “We welcome the fact that HBC’s Masterplan has highlighted the importance of cultural provision within the White Rock Area and the council’s focus on defining future options for the site.

“We are proud of what has been achieved at the theatre over the past nine years and look forward to continue working in partnership with the council as they develop and define their plans for the future use of the site.”

Clarity

“The options appraisal will take a little time to complete, and in the interim we appreciate that causes a degree of uncertainty.  On completion of this phase there will be more clarity regarding the management of the venue’s events diary for the period beyond January 2019.

“During this period we have every intention of assisting HBC wherever we can with the appraisal and I have confirmed our ongoing commitment and support as the council’s plans become more clearly defined.”

HBC have told me that the current contract covers all operational aspects of the building, including its programming and day-to-day maintenance, and that all staff on site are employed by HQ Theatres, not HBC. Their spokesman Kevin Boorman also assured me that, yes, there will be public engagement, and any decision about the building’s future will be made by Cabinet.

Council grasping the nettle

So there we are. Exciting times, and the council are to be commended for grasping this nettle early and making it crystal-clear that ‘comprehensive and sustainable cultural provision’ is a primary consideration. That said, I suspect I’m not alone in feeling slightly queasy at Cllr Kim’s assertion that “the council’s annual subsidy cannot continue beyond” the termination of the current management contract.

What does this mean? Do the council envisage some form of sell-off to create a subsidy-free management model? Or that the town’s existing cultural infrastructure is enough to fulfill the “comprehensive and sustainable cultural provision,” and so, if no new management formula can be agreed upon, that the WRT can be safely put in mothballs?

Soft touch for cuts and closures

All local authority services – be they for culture, leisure or in support of housing, social welfare and so on – are being squeezed. That’s a fact of life. And the arts are traditionally seen as a soft touch for cuts and closures and, just as traditionally, elected councillors are generally baffled by the local support that cultural services attract.

They fail to realise that this arts stuff, that they never get to experience themselves because they’re too busy being councillors, is actually very popular with voters.

Hastings pier view towards entrance

Hastings’s new pier is adjacent to theatre

But would closure, temporary or otherwise, be such a bad thing? With the honorable exception of the International Piano Concerto Competition – which is, in any event, rumored to be about to go from being an annual event to one taking place every two years – the WRT offers very thin gruel indeed for lovers of the arts. The weary procession of tribute bands, blue comics, novelty acts and a panto at Christmas (this year starring Honey G, for pity’s sake) does not make for “comprehensive and sustainable cultural provision.”

Fresh thinking needed

Me, I want the WRT to thrive, improve and continue on to, and beyond, its centenary in 10 years’ time. The new pier is adjacent to the theatre, and could become a partner for it in some way, with advantages for both. But it will need fresh thinking, imagination and higher standards if it is to remain what Cllr Kim rather imaginatively describes as “the main cultural venue for Hastings.”

Posted 10:30 Wednesday, Jul 12, 2017 In: Arts News

5 Comments


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  1. Chris Lewcock

    Since writing the above I’ve been advised by the Council that in fact they haven’t yet published the “completed White Rock Master Plan” which supposedly provides the context for public comments about the future of the Theatre. Can we have any confidence that the Council know what they are doing?

    Comment by Chris Lewcock — Saturday, Jul 15, 2017 @ 17:26

  2. John McDonald

    A land mark building, in a prime location, which could be linked to events on the pier. A successful provincial theatre takes work to become successful and maintain that success. I lived in Blackpool as a teenager and was involved with the Grand Theatre, turning from a run-down bingo hall to a thriving, culturally relevant haven amongst the slot machines and kiss-me-quick hats. Having a venue which can give access to performing arts, promote them and encourage the young to get involved is, in my opinion, a better use of time, money and effort, than pulling it down or even worse, leaving it to slide into an irrelevant eye sore.

    The idea of a charitable trust to run, promote and grow the WRT is one that has worked very well in other coastal towns.

    John

    Comment by John McDonald — Friday, Jul 14, 2017 @ 10:39

  3. Chris Lewcock

    Very worrying constant references to “the site” rather than the theatre. This should be one of the jewels of the seafront and should nicely complement the Pier opposite and the recreational facilities up on the Falaise. Instead, years of under-investment in basic TLC by the Borough Council means that it now appears and is shabby and has become unloved. Not surprisingly the Theatre hasn’t proved as attractive as it might for a wide variety of activities. And it appears that public opinion is being softened up for disposal of “the site”. This process has course has happened before with the Old Town Museum. However, the Theatre has a range of useable spaces inside and could and should be refurbished and promoted. On this limited size site would anything better be achieved by knocking it down and starting again – or will there just be a hole for years and years?

    Comment by Chris Lewcock — Friday, Jul 14, 2017 @ 09:52

  4. Bea Rogers

    The building itself is a white elephant. Although it looks fine from the outside the roof leaks in parts, and has done for years. The acoustics are terrible. The layout is not great (too wide and pillars obscuring the view from some seats). The “cultural” offering is not worth the subsidy.

    That subsidy is one-sixth of the entire budget for Hastings Council. No, it can’t continue and we can’t afford this.

    If there is to be a review it will have to look at all the venues in town (many more than comparable urban areas). It should also look at funding arts and heritage directly, rather than funding commercial venues.

    The site of WRT is key. It should relate to the pier, which needs all the support it can get. I suggest an outline brief for mixed use with some retail/ restaurant element plus prestige housing to bring in the cash and affordable social housing to help the locals. Then put it out to an architectural competition to see how it can enhance the seafront while relating to the buildings that are there already.

    How about using some of the proceeds from this to help fund something on the pier? Not to mention reversing the cuts the Council is making to all its services.

    Comment by Bea Rogers — Thursday, Jul 13, 2017 @ 11:10

  5. K Eaton

    Hi – this year sees a fringe theatre festival in september. I used to frequent the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, where their Studio theatre was in constant use. they had annual scriptwriting competitions, script in hand readings, poetry and new plays events. from what i have been told – there is a studio theatre in the basement of the White Rock and is hardly ever if not ever used.

    this could potentially generate a modest income if cost maintenance and staffing is kept low. there is a thirst for fringe theatre here beyond the amateur productions of the Stables – as shows at Kino demonstrate.

    in the new year there will be a not-for-profit theatre / media production company operating as a Charitable trust. maybe this would be a way to facilitate more creative and professional work. or a opened up to a collective of such companies, or any professional fringe productions.

    Comment by K Eaton — Wednesday, Jul 12, 2017 @ 21:13

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