Survival strategy: How Ayr's Gaiety Theatre is planning for life after Covid-19

With its core team of professionals and army of volunteers, all of whom share a passion for producing work with substance, Ayr’s Gaiety Theatre can weather the Covid storm, writes Joyce McMillan

The Gaiety Theatre’s most recent panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, was produced in-house
The Gaiety Theatre’s most recent panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, was produced in-house

When the Ayr Gaiety Partnership took ownership of the Gaiety Theatre building back in 2012 – paying £1 to South Ayrshire Council for the privilege – their aim went beyond just reopening the much-loved Edwardian theatre, which had been closed down by the council in 2009. The group of local movers and shakers involved also wanted, they said, “to re-energise the performing arts in South Ayrshire, with the Gaiety Theatre as the hub of a network of venues that will stimulate the cultural life and economic prosperity of the area.”

When they took on this bold mission, though, none of them ever imagined having to pursue it in times like these, with the theatre closed for full-scale performances for at least another four months and possibly until Spring 2021, and the building, with its gorgeous traditional auditorium, effectively mothballed. “Back at the beginning of March,” says chief executive Jeremy Wyatt, a founder member of the partnership and former chair of the board of Ayr-based Borderline Theatre, “we were feeling cautiously optimistic about our prospects for this year. It’s true that we suffered a knock-back from Creative Scotland in 2018, when we failed to become a regularly funded organisation because of what they called a ‘lack of strategic fit’.

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“We managed to work through that, though, and last Christmas we brought our panto production in-house for the first time since 2012, commissioning our own writer, director, designers and musicians, and creating the whole show ourselves. It went really well, and we were looking forward to building on that in 2020 when – bang – all this came along.”

When it comes to survival, though, Ayr Gaiety has some powerful shots in its locker, not least its history of repeated returns from a range of closures and disasters, including a devastating fire just a year after it first opened in 1902. The theatre has always been famous for comedy, variety and panto, with its summer Gaiety Whirl sometimes running for a full six-month season, at the height of Ayr’s holiday boom; and dozens of theatre and variety stars have trodden its boards, including, on many occasions, the great comedian, actor and panto dame Johnny Beattie, who died last week, aged 93.

And if the theatre has a history of resilience, it also has strong local backing for its commitment to providing what Borderline founder Eddie Jackson called “entertainment with substance,” when that company first hit the road in the 1970s. Now based at the Gaiety, Borderline was part of the same stable as 7:84 Scotland and Wildcat Productions, with a passionate commitment to bringing a good night out to working class communities around Scotland; and it’s clear that Wyatt and the Gaiety’s artistic director, Vince Hope, see themselves as inheriting something of that tradition of popular entertainment, with a robust radical edge.

Thanks to its strong relationship with the local community, the theatre operates with a small staff of 16 – some part-time – backed by a massive team of 150 volunteers; and its final secret ingredient is the current management’s laser-like eye for artistic quality, matched with the ability to deliver the entertainment Gaiety audiences will enjoy. Ayrshire has always been a powerhouse of literary and dramatic writing in Scotland; and a glance at the list of artists taking part in the theatre’s lockdown workshops, or in its forthcoming online dramatisation of Ayrshire-based writer David F Ross’s novel The Rise And Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas, shows the strength of the theatre’s growing creative network. Those involved include Girvan-born playwright Douglas Maxwell, Scottish slam champion Leyla Josephine, playwrights Gary McNair and Meghan Tyler, writer and director Stuart Hepburn, and actors Colin McCredie, Sarah McCardie, and Tam Dean Burn. The company is also closely linked to brilliant young Glasgow group Wonder Fools, and has strong relations with A Play, A Pie And A Pint, the National Theatre of Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland, which joined forces with the Gaiety in 2014 to make it Scotland’s first “learning theatre.”

“Essentially, we’ve been able to survive, and put this programme together,” says Wyatt, “because we were able to get support very quickly from both UK and Scottish government funds, notably the Scottish Government’s Pivotal Enterprise Fund, and the Supporting Communities and Wellbeing Funds. We’re closely linked to South Ayrshire Council and to our local touring network of village halls, so we’re involved in distributing emergency aid, offering people the opportunity to take part in creative activities during lockdown, and, with Borderline, creating our own new online work.

“And for the future – well, particularly now that a rescue package has been announced, I see this is as an opportunity and a wake-up call, a pause where all of us in theatre can take stock of what we do, and what is really important. The arts and culture in Scotland have got £97 million coming our way, £18 for every person in the country, and we have to work out how best to use that so that it delivers real public benefit.

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“I think we’re all aware, in Scottish theatre, that we are all part of an intricate system of organisations and artists that is interdependent, however much funding systems invite us to compete with each other. There’s also a huge amount of personal good will in the theatre community; so perhaps this is a moment for us to really start to work together much more. We need a theatre strategy for Scotland, in the aftermath of this crisis; and I think it’s time for the people who make theatre in Scotland to come together, and start writing that strategy for ourselves.”

Find out more about Ayr Gaiety’s current work on https://lockdown.thegaiety.co.uk/; the world premiere of Miraculous, based on David F Ross’s novel, will take place online on 30 July

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