As an actor based in the capital, it’s all too easy to forget about the arts beyond the M25. In the febrile and myopic atmosphere of the central London, where the streets are thronged from 9 till 5 with actors ricocheting from meeting to meeting, and where an open Macbook seems to be a condition of entry to any coffee shop, regional theatre can seem a long way away.
In any case, isn’t it facing something of a crisis? With prime real estate being picked off by supermarkets and high-volume house builders, and local councils having to choose between funding the local playhouse or maintaining essential services, small scale regional theatre is barely surviving, let alone striking out.
Or so I thought. But a recent visit to a new enterprise in East Yorkshire has forced me to reconsider my complacency.
The East Riding Theatre, located in the small market town of Beverley, is the brainchild of actor Vincent Regan, who moved to that beautiful part of the country several years ago. The former Methodist chapel has been leased from an enlightened local council at a peppercorn rent, and after several years of hard work and arduous fundraising has been converted into an elegant 165-seat space with a raked auditorium.
The current artistic director, Adrian Rawlins (who lives in nearby Hornsea and is known as one of life’s enthusiasts) had asked me to give a fund-raising talk about my life and times on a Sunday evening in the theatre bar. But as part of the trip he’d also invited me to attend the production currently playing in the main house the night before, an intricate and ambitious family drama, The Night Season, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Why not, thought I? OK, it may all be a bit rickety, the playing standard a tad uneven, and the wine in the bar probably undrinkable, but it would be interesting to see what the fuss was about.
I was soon disabused of any metropolitan smugness. The place was packed, production values superb, and the show itself, performed by a cast of professional actors paid decently enough for their troubles, offered a skilful and moving rendering to a rapt audience. Oh, and the bar did a very decent glass of wine as well.
ERT is admirably supported by both East Riding Council and various local businesses, but better still, is manned and maintained by a veritable army of local volunteers numbering over a hundred, who serve in the bar, man the box office, tear tickets and much else besides. This model may be one driven by economic necessity, but as well as saving on essential costs it means that everyone gets involved and has a personal stake in the venture’s success.
Best of all, from the myriad conversations I had with punters over successive nights, ERT has really been taken to the hearts of the local community. Life may indeed be tough for the arts just now, but ERT proves the oldest of maxims; that passion, commitment and an artistic vision can still surmount the harshest of financial climates.