How do you stage an international festival when the place where you were planning to put on 53 of the events suddenly closes? With the shock decision to shut the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, David Robinson talks to a woman now facing that question
The Byre Theatre was looking great. Everyone said so. True enough, in the last couple of months, after the caterers had pulled out, it had been looking a bit forlorn and empty. But on Wednesday last week, after an awards ceremony organised by Creative Scotland, it was back at its best, packed and buzzing with excitement. The awards were for the most creative places in Scotland, and they were being held at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews because last year it had helped win the Fife town the biggest – £150,000 – award. Jacqueline McKay, who was in charge at the theatre until last October and who had submitted the St Andrews bid, was on hand to explain how the money had helped the Byre to be the town’s creative hub.
Everyone in the audience knew that was true. In just over a week (tonight, in fact), the Fife Jazz Festival was going to rock the joint with what artistic director Roger Spence promised would be its best jazz and blues festival yet. A Swedish big band, singer Carla Cook coming over from America for her only European gig, Muddy Water’s son Mud Morganfield and a host of other musicians would all be taking to the Byre’s stage.
Eleanor Livingstone was in the audience last Wednesday too. She’s been director of StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival, for the last two years, an event that attracted a total audience of 14,000 last year. “Come back in six weeks,” she told everyone she met at the buffet meal afterwards. “We’ve got a whole host of poets here who we’ve been trying to get for years.” She had a proof copy of the programme that had just gone off to the printers in her handbag. Fifty-three of its 103 events were going to take place in the Byre.
In the row in front of her, listening as Dougie Vipond emceed and Pat Kane, Janice Forsyth and Creative Scotland’s new acting chief executive Iain Munro talked about this year’s creative towns, she spotted Mary McKenzie, the Byre’s box office manager. The StAnza festival (6-10 March) is always the Byre’s busiest time of the year, and Livingstone wanted to ask her how ticket sales were going. Fine, Mackenzie told her, promising to give her an update in a week or so. Except that never happened. Two days later came news that the Byre Theatre board had decided to shut down the venue due to ongoing financial difficulties. And no-one – certainly not the theatre’s staff, certainly not the festival directors, and maybe only a couple of people in the audience – knew it was coming.
If you haven’t been there, you probably won’t realise why the closure of the Byre Theatre has come as such a shock to Scotland’s arts community.
The reasons are two-fold. First, because it is such a well-designed, beautiful, modern building – “Scotland’s only five-star arts attraction” according to Visit Scotland, and it has held that honour every year for the last decade. Money has been spent on it – when it reopened in 2001, the £3,385,000 lottery award that had funded the redevelopment was still the biggest granted to any Scottish arts venue – and it shows.
The second reason is something Sean Connery mentioned when he opened it, declaring it “one of the best small auditoriums I’ve ever come across”. It’s an intimate venue, its comfortable blue seats raked steeply so that the audience can be as close as possible to the artist. There’s a stillness in that space between performer and audience, a close stillness that poetry needs perhaps more particularly than any art form, a stillness in which the mind can replay Seamus Heaney’s soft Derry tones or Paul Farley’s spiralling Scouse or Carol Ann Duffy’s fabulous feminist fables.
StAnza director Eleanor Livingstone was making vegetable soup at her home in Leven when she got a call from a friend at the Byre Theatre on Friday lunchtime. Her contact was distraught at the suddenness with which everything was happening: Twenty-five staff (18 of them part-time) had been told that the theatre would shut on Saturday and they wouldn’t be paid after that.
“It was a complete shock,” says Livingstone. “The story that the Byre was struggling financially was a slight background rumble, something you got used to. But because it didn’t look like there would be drastic consequences, it was something that you just treated like a small stone in your shoe: I thought that there might be staff cuts or that the Byre mightn’t open every day of the week, and while that would have been disappointing, I wouldn’t have been altogether surprised. But this was different.”
Only in hindsight did anyone realise that the funding cuts at the Byre had started to form a pattern. In 2007, its Scottish Arts Council grant was cut by two-thirds, meaning it could no longer be a commissioning theatre. Then by 2011, the remaining £160,000 SAC annual subsidy had been lopped off too. The board of the theatre has blamed this loss for “acute problems” meeting its annual running costs. Yet even as the money started to run out, the Byre’s importance to StAnza seemed to grow.
“The Byre is the beating heart of the festival,” says Livingstone. “StAnza isn’t just the sum of its parts: somehow, the whole thing hangs together, and that’s what makes it special. The Byre is a great hub: even when people go to other venues, they meet there and go back there. When the poets arrive in St Andrews, this is where they come, and usually they’d be looking around and saying what a marvellous building it is. So for me, hearing the news, it wasn’t just the fact that half of the events had to be rearranged, it was the whole picture – and it just seemed as though someone had taken a hammer to it. It’s so strange – and to imagine that just a week ago, my greatest worry was that there’d be a typo I hadn’t spotted in the programme!”
What impresses both her and Roger Spence is the dedication of the Byre’s staff, most of whom turned up for work this week even though they weren’t being paid. “They could have simply walked out, and we would both have been in a horrendous situation, with no idea at all what ticket sales there had been,” says Livingstone.
She’ll also miss the expertise of the Byre’s technical staff. As StAnza’s ambitions increased – live link-ups with other poetry festivals, webcasts and the like – she found herself working with them ever more closely. This year, systems manager Steven Sinclair had come up with the idea of putting text panels with the word “sky” translated into all the languages of the poets coming to the festival, on the theatre’s glass roof. Another neat idea that won’t be happening this year.
So, how do you keep a festival going when you lose the building that is its heart? For both festivals, St Andrews Town Hall will stand in for the Byre’s main auditorium – more seats (300 instead of 225) but less atmosphere. Spence has until today to try to transform an ordinary hall into a professional theatre with a proper sound and lighting system and a good piano on the stage. There won’t be a bar, he’s still working out where to feed his Swedish big band, and the closure of the Byre means his festival is £8,000 down on a £50,000 turnover before it even opens. You’d think advance ticket sales might be a help, but you’d be wrong – that money goes to the theatre’s administrator instead.
For Livingstone, the logistics are just as formidable. First, get an online ticketing service up and running. Next, find other venues for all those exhibitions that were going to take place at the Byre. Then, move the festival desk (welcoming the poets) and the finance one (paying them) into the Town Hall Supper Room. Turn that into a Green Room for the poets and performers, preferably one where there is also catering and a bar. Move all the events that were going to be held there into somewhere else.
And – all the time – hope. There are some encouraging comments from Creative Scotland and Fife Council (who own the Byre’s buildings, after all) indicating that this might not be the end of the line and some insiders hint that the council might be shrugging off the Byre’s debts before it takes it over. There might be something in all of that. Because it would be a criminally absurd act of myopic cultural vandalism if the Byre doesn’t survive.