Grassroots spirit needed to revive Byre Theatre

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COMMUNITY spirit is needed to get St Andrews’ Byre Theatre back on its feet, writes Joyce McMillan

Through the archway from South Street, across what was once the Abbey Street farmyard, through a sparkle of fairy lights, and in under the beautifully designed roof edged with red Fife pantiles, at exactly the right height to reflect the old domestic architecture of the space. It’s one of my favourite trips of the year, up to St Andrews to see the Christmas show; last year, around this time, I was writing a review of the Byre Theatre’s far-from-conventional version of Snow White, directed by Gordon Barr of Glasgow’s Bard In The Botanics season, and featuring teams of young performers from the Byre youth theatre.

This year, though, there is no panto at the Byre; because this gorgeous state-of-the-art building – easily the most beautiful small theatre in Scotland, opened as recently as 2001 after a £5.5 million lottery-funded rebuilding programme – is dark and closed, and has been since 25 January this year, when the organisation declared itself insolvent, and ceased operations overnight. The reasons for the scale and suddenness of the failure are complex, and include the Scottish Arts Council’s decision, back in 2006, to cease the funding of theatre production at St Andrews, and to ask the theatre to reinvent itself as a receiving house for touring shows.

The truth is, though, that many theatres in Scotland have survived similar decisions, and emerged in good shape. The Brunton Theatre at Musselburgh, now a thriving music, theatre and dance venue with a strong community programme, is an outstanding example; and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there were weaknesses of management and governance, at the Byre, that helped to make a disaster out of what could have been a manageable crisis.

If the failure of the Byre raises big questions about the Scottish arts scene’s heavy dependence on the wisdom and expertise of purely voluntary boards, though, it has also exposed a striking lack of urgency among all the official bodies involved, led by Fife Council – which are in the process of transferring the management of their theatres to a new body, Fife Cultural Trust – and Creative Scotland, whose new boss Janet Archer seemed not to have been briefed on the Byre closure when she visited the area a few weeks ago. A meeting in St Andrews in November, attended by more than 100 local activists, was told that Fife Council is willing to commit £250,000 a year in funding for the Byre, and Creative Scotland £100,000 a year for three years; and that a plan is in place to reopen the building temporarily, in Spring 2014, for the town’s two high-profile festivals, the Fife Jazz Festival and the StAnza Poetry Festival. Members of the public were left wondering, though, why those involved are not willing to make similar arrangements for the many community and creative groups who also use the theatre. “You say that the festivals are critically reliant on the Byre,” said a youth theatre leader to Fife Cultural Trust boss Grant Ward . “Well, we are critically reliant on the Byre too!”

Amid all the delay and blame-laying, though, it is perhaps worth remembering the origins of the Byre, back in 1933, as an amateur drama space set up in an old cowshed; and pondering whether the great moving spirit behind the theatre, Alex B Paterson – for whom the main Byre auditorium is named – would not be spinning in his grave at the thought of St Andrews theatre fans sitting around waiting for a bunch of distant bureaucrats to decide when they can reopen a theatre which is, in every important sense, theirs. Occupy the Byre? I could never advocate anything so rash. But Alex Paterson and his friends certainly occupied a byre once, in the interests of St Andrews theatre; and 80 years on, it’s perhaps time to rediscover some of that grassroots creative spirit, and to give the high heid-yins in Dunfermline and Edinburgh a sharp and seasonal panto-style kick in the rear, to roars of applause from the audience.