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Time for a change at Worthing Theatres
The big challenge faced by many bosses across the country right now is how to get more for less.
The woman tasked with running Worthing Theatres would have been shocked had she not faced such a predicament.
But what makes Amanda O’Reilly (pictured) a refreshing proposition is she intends to approach the problem through growth, not cuts.
Not only is that good for audiences and staff in Worthing but it is also good for new artists wanting to get a break in traditional venues.
“It’s been a long long time since I have worked for a council because I have been at indepen-dent organisations,” explains O’Reilly, who has been in the job for three months since leaving The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant after ten years.
“I have really learnt how to stretch the pennies and save money. We all agree theatres need to be supported less by council taxpayers. Certainly I’m keen for the theatres to stand on their own two feet.”
When she arrived, the task in her in-tray was to improve “the customer experience”.
She could have taken that many ways. O’Reilly believes the best way to do so is to make improve-ments across the board – from programming and booking to atmosphere and environment.
“One of the things I want less of is repeat visits,” she explains. “At the moment there are lots of different musicians and tribute bands that come back every year. We’ve changed our policy and we don’t want a repeat booking for 24 months – that way we can make room for new projects.”
O’Reilly wants more variety and she wants each venue – the Pavilion Theatre, the Connaught Theatre, the Assembly Hall and The Ritz – to be used to its maximum potential. Having four venues to play with gives great scope for creativity.
“The Ritz was always used as a cinema but what we have done is put a digital cinema protection unit into The Connaught to give more flexibility, which means we can free up the Ritz for live performance.
“It is the smallest venue and it means we can bring in smaller live shows. That way we can have a show with only 240 people in the audience and it will still feel intimate as opposed to in the 520-seat, which wouldn’t feel as full.”
This has been worked into the spring programme with two stand-up shows a month from March, featuring names people may recognise from TV, such as Lucy Porter and Andrew Lawrence, but not necessarily know a great deal about.
“It means they can grow with us. They can move into The Connaught, as Jimmy Carr has, and then on to the Assembly Hall. It’s almost like growing a seed.”
This fits with another of O’Reilly’s aims: to find a new audience while keeping the existing one entertained.
So other debut visitors to Worthing later in the year include the Globe Theatre On Tour and Dr Lucie Green, who has featured on Stargazing Live with Professor Brian Cox.
“In the past programming has focused on comedians and performers who have served their time. One of the things I felt the programme could benefit from is new talent across all genres.”
There will be a new box office in April to make it easier for people to buy tickets and a new straightforward pricing structure.
O’Reilly wants the theatres to be more creative with the staging and cites the example of Cinderella On Ice (Pavilion Theatre, February 13 to 17) as a way things are changing.
“I looked at that with the tech team and we are not having it on stage. We have decided to put it in the centre of the venue, so it is in the round. It means the view is improved and you are closer to the ice. It’s been popular for years but we have given it a twist and having a skater a metre away is always really exciting.”
Another key challenge she has set herself is to reduce the money the theatres take from Worthing Council by 25% in three years.
“We also want to look at developing the business side and hiring the venues out. The Pavilion Theatre does a black tie dinner already and the fact we have four venues means if there is a wedding, there are still three venues with an artist performing.
“We are obviously not looking at a wedding every weekend, but if it helps us keep the theatre open, if it helps us reduce the amount of money the council has to put in, it’s a good thing.”
There have been threats to close one of the four venues before. Why does Worthing need them all and why do they need to be all under council ownership? But by receiving taxpayer funding they have the freedom to programme less popular shows and give a space for community groups to hire the venues – something else O’Reilly is keen to increase.
“We are certainly not looking at closing any venues. It’s more about searching out different funding streams to be able to make all the changes we’ve got on the table.”
Some day they might even be able to produce their own shows.
“Maybe in two years’ time we might look to do that. To start we would want a theatre company to work in partnership, so we wouldn’t be looking at starting from scratch, but it would be great to commission work in the future.”