As the Theatres Trust publishes its annual Theatres at Risk register, its director tells Nick Smurthwaite about its mission to work with communities – and why the organisation isn’t the ‘National Trust for theatre buildings’
What does the Theatres Trust actually do? That is the question most fired at Jon Morgan, director of the organisation since 2017. His answer every time: “How long have you got?”
Since it was set up in 1976 the trust’s mission has been to protect and promote Britain’s theatre buildings, ensuring their survival and ongoing use as performance spaces. However, the combined stewardship of Morgan and chair Tim Eyles has seen something of a shift of emphasis in recent years.
Morgan says: “In the past, there may have been a misperception that we are a kind of National Trust for theatre buildings – that all we care about is saving old buildings – but actually what we really care about is communities accessing live performance. The buildings are a means of doing that.”
He sees the trust as “a critical friend” to the sector, advising and helping, as well as a conduit when it comes to putting a case to local or national governments, making sure they understand the benefits of investing in and protecting theatres across the UK.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Front-of-house manager at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Without taking risks and making mistakes you’ll never learn anything.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Giles Havergal, the former director of Glasgow Citizens, who combined the ability to take creative risks, keep a tight control of the budget, and most importantly embody the spirit of inclusive, welcoming theatre, personally greeting the audience at the front door.
If you hadn’t gone into theatre administration, what would you have been?
I am rather fond of a spreadsheet, so I might have become an accountant.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Not really, although I miss my days of being the person who had to lock up a dark theatre at the end of the night.
So whenever a regional or West End theatre requires planning permission to make improvements or alterations, the local authority will approach the trust for its opinion. Last year it advised on 354 planning submissions.
“What we’re increasingly doing,” says Morgan, “is encouraging theatres to talk to us much earlier in the process, before any plans are submitted to the local authority. We did that with Fairfield Halls in Croydon, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the King’s Theatre Edinburgh and the King’s Head in Islington. I want to shift the perception of the trust from this hurdle that has to be jumped over at the end of the process to us being there at the start, offering help and advice.”
Morgan’s theatrical involvement began 33 years ago when, as a 25-year-old graduate in need of a job, he wandered into the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, near his family home, and asked if they had any jobs. “They needed a front-of-house manager and I got the job. I used to try to persuade them to do more straight theatre, rather than tribute acts, stand-up comedians and snooker demonstrations. These days, I’m less of a snob about theatre. If people are enjoying live performance, whatever it is, that’s what matters.”
In 1989, he took a job running the programme at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), intending to stay just for the duration of the 1990 Glasgow Year of Culture. “I finished up staying in Scotland for the best part of my adult career,” he says. “What I love about the Scottish arts scene is that it’s quite small, so everybody knows everybody and you can really get things done quickly.”
After a number of hands-on producing roles, he became director of the Federation of Scottish Theatre – Scotland’s equivalent of UK Theatre – in 2008. “I did think I’d miss the coalface but I found that I really enjoyed the more strategic and influencing side of things where your aim is to make good stuff happen.”
One of his main achievements at the FST was to ensure that the Scottish government made participation in cultural activities one of its key targets. Working in Scotland and the north of England gave Morgan a keen sense of how much local theatres mattered to artists and audiences. “They’re often the heart of the community,” he says. “Theatre buildings are more than bricks and mortar – they’re a way of bringing people together to enjoy a common experience. That’s my aim for the trust: to make sure we continue to have a healthy and viable network of theatres of all kinds.”
He continues: “We’re very lucky to have the trust. There isn’t an equivalent statutory body for libraries, museums or galleries. In the 60 years before the trust was set up, 800 theatres were demolished. Now it is very rare to lose a theatre.”
‘Theatre buildings are more than bricks and mortar – they’re a way of bringing people together to enjoy a common experience’
Since 2006, the trust has published the Theatres at Risk register every year, highlighting theatres across the UK that are under threat of closure, redevelopment or demolition. Two venues have been removed from the list this year – Bradford Odeon and Peterborough New Theatre (formerly the Broadway Theatre). Their futures have been secured, the former as a music venue, the latter producing live theatre courtesy of Selladoor Worldwide.
The current register lists 30 UK venues under threat for a variety of reasons. At the launch event at London’s Hoxton Hall on January 28, Morgan called for more collaborative creative partnerships between local authorities, theatre owners, operators and community groups to protect all the endangered venues.
He says: “Since we started publishing the list, we’ve saved 80 theatres, including Wilton’s Music Hall, Alexandra Palace, Tyne Theatre and Opera House, and the Brewhouse in Taunton. Generally speaking, we only put theatres on the list that have a good chance of remaining or returning to being a community performance venue. We work alongside local pressure groups to organise viability studies and advise on fundraising strategies. Without a viability study it is difficult to make a case.”
The sheer number of UK venues embraced by the trust is mind-boggling, as is Morgan’s dedication to the job of leading his nine-strong team from its offices in Charing Cross Road, at the heart of London’s West End.
Its income derives primarily from the rentals of the three West End theatres it owns – the Lyric, Garrick and Lyceum theatres. The freeholds were gifted to the trust in the mid-1980s, providing it with a steady income ever since. Morgan says it is “a blessing because we can predict our income more confidently than people dependent on public money”.
So far as West End theatres go, what can and cannot be achieved in the way of improvements and alterations is usually determined by its listing category. Morgan says: “Listings are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, listing is a way of protecting an old building from being demolished, which is obviously valuable. On the other, it can sometimes be a barrier to making much-needed improvements. But there is often a lot more you can do to a listed building than you think.”
Morgan and his colleagues advise theatre owners on what Historic England, the body responsible for listing buildings, will and won’t accept. The trust is currently preparing an advisory report for Historic England about the UK’s interwar theatres – built between 1918 and 1939 – to better understand their operation and structure.
The trust has also been collaborating with Historic England on a safety report about suspended plaster ceilings, following the incidents at the Apollo Theatre in 2013 and the Piccadilly Theatre last year. Morgan says: “Safety is paramount to theatre owners, and I’m confident that our theatres are not unsafe. As a result of the Apollo ceiling collapse we and the Association of British Theatre Technicians issued guidance saying that all theatre buildings had to be inspected. The incident at the Piccadilly wasn’t the same thing because it was caused by a water leak.”
Another challenge for the trust is the retail crisis in Britain’s towns and cities, drastically reducing the footfall in areas that may contain a venue. On the bright side, the availability of retail space may open up possibilities for pop-up entertainments and community activities.
“One thing we’re trying to encourage theatres to do is to generate more income by developing the front-of-house area and provide all-day community space,” says Morgan. “In some ways theatres and other venues have taken over the role of church halls and village halls. It’s the way ahead for regional theatre.”
Born: Dartford, 1962
Training: Postgraduate diploma in arts management, City University, London (1990-91)
• Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, venues manager (1987-89)
• Paragon Ensemble, Glasgow, general manager (1992-95)
• Theatre About Glasgow, general manager (1995-2002)
• Contact Theatre, Manchester (2003-07)
• Edinburgh Fringe Festival, director (2007-08)
• Federation of Scottish Theatre, director (2008-16)
• Theatres Trust, director, (2017-present)