The story of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, over the last four years, has been something of a roller-coaster ride. First there was despair, as Scotland’s most beautiful small-scale theatre – with its gorgeous new building completed only in 2001 – fell into severe financial difficulties, and then closed its doors overnight, in January 2013. A year of gloom and silence followed, as protest meetings were held in the town and Creative Scotland and Fife Council (which owns the building) both seemed to drag their feet over a solution; the lively bunch of townsfolk led by the legendary AB Paterson, who founded the theatre in an old cow-byre in 1933, could be imagined spinning in their graves, as a once-proud community waited for top-down decisions from faraway Edinburgh and Glenrothes.
Then in spring 2014 there was a glimmer of hope, as a “preferred bidder” to run the theatre emerged; followed by doubt, when it transpired that the bidder was St Andrews’s increasingly powerful university, and that what had been a proud “town” institution faced takeover by the “gown”, perhaps becoming what sounded, initially, like a glorified lecture theatre with some evening performances. After many months of negotiation, though, and extensive re-writing of the initial 12-year lease under which the university would take over the running of the theatre, the Byre reopened in the autumn of 2014, with the university’s director of music, Michael Downes, at the helm as transitional artistic director; and he began a steady move back to the successful programming of the venue, not least as one of Scotland’s finest receiving houses for small-to-medium-scale professional theatre, with its own annual panto to delight the Christmas crowds.
And now the Byre is moving on to a new stage in its recovery, with the appointment of Liam Sinclair as artistic director, in charge of programming, co-production and the overall running of the venue. Now in his mid-30s, Sinclair grew up in Edinburgh, was inspired by a great drama teacher at Leith Academy and studied contemporary theatre practice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland before working on youth theatre projects for several years in the early 2000s. In 2007, he took over the running of Edinburgh’s annual Mela, now sadly in abeyance after a series of internal disputes; but for three years until 2010, the annual event on Leith Links thrived under Sinclair’s stewardship, until he moved on to become artistic director of the Macrobert at Stirling University, which is both a major receiving house and an important centre of performance and production for Scotland’s thriving children’s theatre scene. At Stirling, Sinclair learned a great deal about how to run an arts centre linked to a university, and worked hard on developing the Macrobert’s image as a venue offering a wide range of theatre, to adults as well as children; he also began to recognise that his own talent as a producer worked best when he also had a strong creative involvement in the projects in hand. In 2014, he moved on to Scottish Dance Theatre, Scotland’s premier contemporary dance company, as Executive Producer; when I speak to him, he is on tour in Brazil, with what he describes as “the most wonderful, inspiring bunch of people to work with”, led by SDT artistic director Fleur Darkin.
Yet when the University of St Andrews advertised for a new artistic director for the Byre, Sinclair found the challenge impossible to resist. “I think there were two main reasons,” he says, on a crackly connection from Sao Paulo. “In the first place, as everyone says, the Byre is just the most beautiful small-scale theatre in Scotland – wonderful main auditorium, studio theatre, bar, restaurant, location. Anyone in this business would be tempted by it.
“Then secondly, I was very strongly attracted by the idea of working in partnership with a university again. My aim is that the Byre shouldn’t just be an administrative involvement or a financial investment for the university, but a real creative partnership, in which we use the university’s great resources in the arts and sciences to explore new ideas and new areas of work, and that in turn produces levels of community engagement and creative thinking that will enrich both the university and the town. I would imagine artist residencies in which, for example, playwrights would work with us and with a university department to create new work that really explores the world we now live in, and the futures we face. So I’m not interested in keeping the university at arms’ length at all, in that sense. I want their creative input and involvement, and a strong university presence on the board, which I think we’ve got.”
So how will Sinclair ensure that the Byre’s old identity as a “town” institution isn’t completely overwhelmed, in this new age of intense collaboration with the university? “Well, when I was preparing to apply for the job,” he says, “I got hold of the full lease document agreed by Fife Council and the university in 2014, which details the ways in which the theatre will continue to serve the community, as a professional performing venue, and as a focus for community arts, youth and children’s theatre, and the town’s festivals. In this job, I see myself as the custodian of that lease, the founding document of the new Byre, if you like. Part of the recovery from the closure of the Byre involves a steady rebuilding of our audience, from St Andrews and beyond. And we won’t succeed in that unless we make this a creative centre for the whole community; supported by the university and inspired by its work, but absolutely open to everyone.”
• For further details of the Byre’s current programme, see www.byretheatre.com/whats-on