Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

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What future for the White Rock Theatre?

What is to become of that iconic Hastings landmark, the White Rock Theatre, when its subsidised contract runs out in just over a year’s time? The council proposes to continue with the subsidy arrangement, while another ambitious future is put forward in the White Rock Area Masterplan. Both these solutions are unsatisfactory, according to Bea Rogers, who has other suggestions to make.

The White Rock Theatre is owned by Hastings Borough Council and currently run by HQ Theatres & Hospitality on a contract which is due to finish at the end of January 2019 – just over a year to go, then. The building itself, although it looks good from the front, is in a poor state and will need substantial repairs if it is retained. The acoustics are not very good, the wide shape is far from ideal, and scenery and backstage facilities are inadequate.

The current annual subsidy to HQ – the highest of any in its national chain – is £615,400. If this hefty sum were terminated, the funds released would provide a major boost to public services and jobs in Hastings. The Council would also have a valuable site for redevelopment.

The Council is now proposing, with no public debate, to continue the subsidy to HQ for a further five years from 2019 at a lower level, though still many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. They have made an offer (exact figure not disclosed) and HQ have not yet responded. They are presumably hoping for more if they hold out.

Council leader Peter Chowney told the Council meeting on 13 December that he had decided to do this because he had been approached by local organisers of events that use White Rock. All of them use other venues in the town, or could do so if White Rock closed, and none of them is able to fill the theatre’s 1,063-seat capacity.

wrt 300The children’s music festival could use more than one venue, and the piano competition could go to St Mary in the Castle or Opus. If they want something bigger, there is the De La Warr in Bexhill. The size of White Rock was cited by Chowney as a reason to keep it open, but events organisers generally consider that it is too big for the real needs of the town.

Proper scrutiny

There really needs to be proper public scrutiny of any decision to continue a subsidy. The Council itself has criticised the nature of some of the HQ choices of “entertainer” brought in. Do we really want to continue with a lopsided subsidy policy that favours them and denies any financial help to all the other performance organisers and venues in the town?

This is all related to the proposals for redeveloping the whole of the White Rock area, from the sea front up to Bohemia. One of the consultants’ suggestions was a redeveloped theatre/conference centre on that site and extending across Schwerte Way. Any such building would be extremely high-cost in both capital and maintenance, and it is doubtful whether this is realistic.

Meanwhile Pam Brown has made an interesting suggestion for the current building: turn it into a visitor centre (which this town needs) complete with 1066 historical displays and the long-hidden Hastings Embroidery, and using Sussex Hall downstairs as an affordable community space (which it is not at the moment).

My own suggestion is to think what could help the pier opposite and redevelop the site with semi-basement car and coach parking, a new community hall, a visitor centre along the lines of Pam’s suggestions, and flats above to help pay for it all and include some affordable housing.

And if the Council wants to subsidise the performance culture in Hastings, bring it on!

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Posted 11:56 Sunday, Dec 31, 2017 In: Arts News


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  1. Glyn Carter

    What do the people of Hastings and St Leonards get out of this £1/2million subsidy to the tiny proportion of residents who like the rubbish put on?
    – An important symbol, like the pier? Nope.
    – A prestige attraction to bring in wealthy visitors and DFL-ers? I think not.
    – A vibrant hub for local arts, where young and established practitioners can train and build careers? Don’t make me laugh.

    The only benefit seems to be its value as a venue for the few community arts ventures that have eached that level. Well, fine, but smaller community arts activites, and other venues get squeezed out, with the potential pot of support sucked into the Black Hole Theatre.

    Instead of piecemeal crisis management, what’s needed is an open review of needs and provision. Maybe thee are win-wins, maybe consensus can be found. This would be in the context of the Cultural Regeneration Strategy. Current decisions around the White Elephant Theatre are barely cultural, have no regeneration value, and are definitely not strategic.

    Comment by Glyn Carter — Thursday, Jan 4, 2018 @ 14:37

  2. Ms.Doubtfire

    The White Rock theatre needs to come under new management – management which understands what theatre is all about. We do not need all these tacky lookalike tribute shows and other ghastly stuff….and neither do we need to pull down this wonderful building or indeed, move it to the outskirts of town down at the Sussex Exchange. Who would go there? Our theatre needs to be central and to attract local people and visitors alike. The present venue is ideally situated but needs new management.
    Whoever wrote this article has little sense of what theatre is all about. What a wasted opportunity.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Thursday, Jan 4, 2018 @ 12:20

  3. Bea

    Thanks Kate for calling me an idiot. How very supportive.

    I agree with John Knowles that all concerned should be involved in a proper debate on the future of this building alongside the other performance venues in and around the town. That’s why I wrote the piece.

    All the best,

    Comment by Bea — Thursday, Jan 4, 2018 @ 12:11

  4. David Stevenson

    The authors of the White Rock Area Masterplan say that the theatre is too small and suggest expanding it across the adjacent road. According to the report above “events organisers generally consider that it is too big for the real needs of the town.” So which is it – too small or too big?

    Comment by David Stevenson — Thursday, Jan 4, 2018 @ 12:07

  5. david cowan

    Well said John. We need some of the more intersting music acts that go to De la Warr as they are mainly attended by people from Hastings and Brighton as well as the independent touring theatre acts that go to arts centres, rather than dreary diet of tribute acts and naff ‘theatre’.

    Comment by david cowan — Wednesday, Jan 3, 2018 @ 20:37

  6. Judith Monk

    I think a brand new, well prepared, modern theatre with substantial car parking should one day be built near the Sussex Exchange for instance on the edge of town. It could then host first class ballet, opera and tours. The current stage area is not big enough to attract these. The existing theatre could then be turned over to the local groups who feel they could make it profitable without the need for a subsidy from the council. Turning it into a visitor centre and more flats would be a travesty. In it’s favour though the White Rock Theatre have a wonderful Youth Theatre group and put on astonishingly good performances and training throughout the year. They beat the local stage schools into a cocked hat!

    Comment by Judith Monk — Monday, Jan 1, 2018 @ 13:59

  7. Kate O’Hearn

    I am sorry, but the writer of this article is an idiot. Next they’ll be suggesting we turn the White Rock into seafront apartments! It is a THEATRE and they are precious – it is less expensive that a trip to London to see shows and helps keep the arts alive? To turn it into a flat, dry, boring visitor’s centre would be a crime. Worse, into a parking lot to support the pier that has gone broke! It is a treasure that needs to be preserved and protected!

    Comment by Kate O'Hearn — Monday, Jan 1, 2018 @ 11:54

  8. John Knowles

    I find it astonishing that neither the council nor the White Rock Theatre have thought to discuss the role of the theatre with local theatre makers. There are currently a number of professional theatre makers in this town who have produced work which is innovative, challenging and yet popular. More importantly companies who have helped support local actors and theatre makers, three of whom have been invited to one of Europe leading Theatre Festivals this summer (more to be announced). It is not The White Rock who set up a Fringe or indeed any Theatre Festival, it is not the White Rock who supports developing local talent through First Heard play readings (that’s The Electric Palace Cinema and It’s Not Us). It is a travesty at this crucial moment that not one local representative of theatre makers based here has been invited to meet with the White Rock or have more than a cursory meeting with the council. This should be the hub of local theatre, the centre for local arts discussions and theatre development, however it continues to be a White Elephant, taking local Arts money funding for third rate tours, hypnotists and adult only comedies, fine if they made a profit, but why in the last five years have we been paying a subsidy for this? I suspect that the current management have no rel intention of working local, it doesn’t fit their model of one size fits all, no risk theatre. But it’s a shame as we should be part of the mix and not left out in the cold.

    Comment by John Knowles — Sunday, Dec 31, 2017 @ 12:05

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