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White Rock Theatre’s Lorna Strawson and husband Luke got married on stage

Lorna Strawson – White Rock Theatre’s bright new face

The White Rock Theatre stands on the sea front, adjacent to the new pier. A gorgeous building, inside and out, exuding 1930s swagger and style. And since October last year it’s had a new Director, Lorna Strawson. Toby Sargent went along to meet her for the second of our Hastings People profiles, and found a really class act.

The gallery is an ideal setting for our chat. With the sun beating down through the huge windows on the elegant Art Deco furniture, Lorna Strawson and I are talking about her career. She’s immaculately dressed with fingernails an eerily perfect match for her blouse, with a confident demeanour and the sort of clear spoken delivery that suggests a more than passing acquaintance with the performance part of working in the theatre:

“I was always desperate to work in the theatre”

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Evangelist for Hastings and the White Rock Theatre: Lorna Strawson sitting in the theatre’s gallery

“I was always desperate to work in the theatre because I used to perform on stage. We all performed: dance, singing or acting – it was something that our mum got us into. I was a member of a local dance school learning ballet, tap and modern jazz, and then I went on to study dance at college.”

Unusually for someone in the arts, Lorna’s entire professional career so far has been with just one company: The White Rock Theatre. How did that come about?

“I handed over my CV when I was 18 – that was the earliest you could apply – thinking they might want some extra staff for panto.

“Three months later and I get a call from them saying they were a bit short in the cafe and ‘You’ve got some cafe experience, so do you want to come and start working here?’ so I did.”

The next stop was the University of Chichester where she studied Dance and Performing Arts, while keeping up her links with the White Rock through casual holiday jobs to make money. This paid off and, having finished at Chichester, the theatre got back in touch:

“I had enthusiasm and I was willing to try”

“They offered me a front-of-house supervisor position but still as a casual and, although I’d never worked front-of-house before, I took on the challenge. Then I became Hospitality Manager at 22 and, although I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing all the time, I had the enthusiasm and I was willing to try. Then I went for Customer Services Manager, and then General Manager, and then at the end of last year, they offered me the chance to be Director.”

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The White Rock Theatre in Hastings has a perfect location, adjacent to the newly reopened pier

So in just six years, she has risen to the very top. Had this been her strategy to begin with? Apparently not. It seems the original ‘five year plan’ was to get experience at different venues so, as she tells me, “it’s all been a bit of a shock.”

But this is no tale of lucky breaks or favouritism. She got the top job through talent, experience in pretty much every part of the organisation and her passion for the performing arts. As Director, she manages 16 full-time staff including four senior managers and between 30-40 casuals at different points in the year. She told me about her priorities and what she hopes to achieve at the theatre:

“Every year we’re improving and the quality of the product we’re able to get in is getting better, and there’s lots of potential to be better still. I want to see more unique events and more community engagement so that we become the ‘people’s theatre,’ so that we provide the town with what people want to come and see, and want to come and do.

“Every year we’re improving . . and there’s lots of potential to be better still”

“We’re very good at comedy here and the A-list comedians sell really fast. We’ve had mixed opinions about putting on tribute acts but they’re very popular with the audience, and they really know how to put on a full show. I know the building inside out but programming – booking performers – was the thing I had to learn. But the thing is that I’m never going to be completely satisfied.”

Another concern, and a significant limiting factor when it comes to making bookings, is the financial side of the business. Lorna tells me that the promoters of the big name acts always demand a big percentage of the box office take: sometimes as much as 90 per cent. So sometimes there simply isn’t enough left over for the theatre on the night to break even. Add to this the ongoing worries of managing what is in effect a historic building, with all the attendant running costs, and a picture starts to emerge of a woman who has to perform many different and difficult roles.

“Everything is on the rise . . it’s really exciting”

Location can often be crucial in an arts venue’s success. I ask Lorna what she thinks of Hastings itself. Is the town’s future bright?

“Absolutely! One hundred per cent. If you look at what’s happening at the moment with the pier, the regeneration of this area, the business improvement district and the centre of the town – everything is on the rise: it’s really exciting.

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Lorna is in no doubt that Hastings has a bright future

“The only frustration in my job comes from sometimes having to persuade people how brilliant Hastings is, and how well this theatre is doing.”

So Lorna Strawson is an evangelist for our town and what it has to offer. She is also, of course, her theatre’s number one fan. So much so that when she and her husband Luke got married in May this year, there was really only one place she wanted to hold the ceremony and the reception afterwards:

“I couldn’t see us getting married anywhere else.”

White Rock Theatre’s website.

Posted 08:02 Friday, Sep 23, 2016 In: Hastings People

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