Exclusive: Hackney Empire to close in January

Hackney Empire – London’s flagship variety theatre – is to go dark in the new year due to financial difficulties, making much of its workforce redundant.

The venue will continue to operate a full programme until the end of its pantomime in January 2010, before winding up its main house operation “for a period of reflection” of between six and nine months. It plans to reopen for the following year’s pantomime. During the dark period, the main stage theatre programme will cease but participation and youth work will continue. Only a skeleton staff will be retained, with consultation over redundancies beginning early next month.

The development follows the departure of artistic director and chief executive Simon Thomsett, who left the venue “by mutual consent” last month. He has been replaced by Clarie Middleton as interim chief executive. Middleton had been brought in by the board as a consultant earlier in the year on the recommendation of Arts Council England, as she has previously dealt with similar situations at the Bristol Old Vic and Exeter Northcott Theatres.

Middleton stressed that Hackney was not undergoing a full closure.

“It will have substantially reduced activity,” she told The Stage. “The idea is that we stop, take a breath and take stock of the way the organisation operates. We just need a little time to do that. There will be a major participation effort during that time and there will be a number of events on the stage. If we were to just keep on working, we wouldn’t have time to stocktake and perhaps look again at the way we sell tickets, different marketing techniques, different programming perhaps.

“I think there are a lot of similarities with Bristol. I think Bristol wanted to reflect on how it ran itself. But it’s now reopening with a wonderful new chief executive and artistic director. Yes, it was painful, yes, it was sad in Bristol, but the future there is now great. What I’m hoping is that something similar will happen in Hackney.”

However, as happened in Bristol, some sources close to the Empire have complained that ACE has taken too great an involvement in the decision-making process, bearing in mind its funding represents around 15% of turnover for the venue.

One told The Stage: “It has become clear that the arts council want change and plan to close the Empire for a period of time in order to achieve this,” while another added: “The Empire has been a champion of popular and multicultural theatre and it might be that this is not the arts council’s view of what it should be putting on.”

Middleton and an arts council spokesman both rejected the claims and insisted the decision to temporarily close the venue had been the board’s.

“The arts council aren’t interfering but they are being supportive,” said Middleton.”It would be very unfair to say that Hackney has been leant on by the arts council, because all the arts council wants to do is support the board in a plan that the board come up with for getting out of this.

“I think all the stakeholders are keen to see Hackney Empire flourishing for 2012 [the Olympics], but also beyond that,” she added.

The ACE spokesman added: “This is the board’s plan. Of course, we and the London Borough of Hackney have been in very close conversation with them for quite a considerable period of time. But the changes that are taking place at the Empire and the measures that they are having to bring in to make that happen is the plan of the board. This is not about micro-management.”

Meanwhile, Thomsett, who had worked at the Empire for 14 years, said that he had left to pursue freelance projects but added that the 2008 season at Hackney had financially been its most successful since it reopened in 2004.

He said: “It has been a privilege to have been a custodian of the great Hackney Empire and to work alongside its excellent staff team, and I am proud to have been at the helm in recent years, during an exciting period of growth and hard-won successes.

“Last year was the most successful since reopening, following the theatre’s refurbishment in 2004 – we achieved increased revenues and record audiences and, for our homegrown pantomime, Mother Goose, a first Olivier Award nomination for Hackney for Clive Rowe’s work.

“Now seems to be the right time to move on and fulfil some other ambitions, and I wish everyone at the Empire the very best for the future.”

* For more on this story, see this week’s print edition of The Stage.

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