Exclusive: Arts Council England has been accused of forcing the Bristol Old Vic board into its forthcoming closure of the theatre and the departure of artistic director Simon Reade.
The board has decided to close the venue this August, while Reade leaves next month. The move will lead to major redundancies, with a ‘skeleton staff’ retained during the redevelopment period of at least two years.
Theatre officials have insisted the swift decision was made after a recent survey revealed urgent work was required on the theatre to keep it in line with health and safety standards.
However, the move has meant that an autumn season, which included two productions from Kneehigh and Kenneth Branagh directing Ivanov, has been cancelled at short notice – with a feared knock-on effect for other companies involved. One board member has resigned in protest, while another is expected to leave over the coming weeks.
A source close to the board told The Stage the decisions taken had been made under pressure from ACE. An official ACE observer has been present at board meetings during the last few months, including the final emergency meeting held a fortnight ago.
The source added: “What has happened to the Bristol Old Vic is very sad and absolutely scandalous. A theatre without an artistic director is a building without a vision. It’s just a building. Many theatres have to be closed temporarily for refurbishment – but these refurbs are carefully planned in advance and the work carries on.
“My fear is that without an artistic director, the Bristol Old Vic as we’ve come to appreciate it since Simon’s arrival will vanish overnight. It baffles me that the board turned down a fabulous autumn season which any theatre in the country would have been proud to stage. The board has appeared to take dictation from the arts council with disastrous consequences – a dark theatre and major redundancies. When, or if, Bristol Old Vic reopens, will it still be a producing house or just a receiving house?”
The developments have also come under fire from former artistic director David Farr, who complained that staff at the venue had been treated “very harshly” and said he lacked confidence in the proposed refurbishment, given the manner in which the decision to close was taken.
Rupert Rhymes, chairman of trustees at Bristol Old Vic, insisted he believed the venue could raise the remaining £2 million it needs to reach the £7 million refurbishment target.
However, he acknowledged the venue had been struggling financially and certain productions had failed to bring in the required box office. At the end of the last financial year, the venue had a deficit of around £160,000.
Rhymes defended the board against accusations it had not stood up to pressure from ACE. He said: “There is an allocation of £2 million from the arts council for the capital appeal. We have to do certain things to have that in the bank and I don’t think having a stand-up row with the arts council would be constructive for that.”
A spokeswoman for ACE said that it had worked closely with Bristol Old Vic over a number of years to help it thrive.
She added: “The suggestion that the closure was the result of instruction or advice from ACE is untrue. The proposal to close and the decision to do so came from members of the theatre board.
“The arts council’s £2 million allocation towards the capital project is a separate issue. The original allocation, made in 2004, was conditional on the submission of a development plan by the theatre, which had then to be approved by our National Council.
“The final extended deadline for this submission is September 2007 and Bristol Old Vic has been regularly advised that if this deadline is not met, we may have to withdraw the capital allocation in January 2008. There has been no question of the immediate removal of ACE revenue funding, which we would want used to support an orderly closure.”