Dauntless attitude gets the cash to make sure the show goes on
In a few days time they will pack away the sparkly frocks, call time on corny jokes, and a year will go by before anyone yells “he’s behind you” at the actors on stage at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds.
The panto is almost over at Britain’s third oldest theatre. It’s their biggest money-spinner, seen by well over 20,000 people.
But the task of raising funds to run the country’s only working Regency playhouse is never-ending.
A crucial part of the budget is the 13 percent secured by its development team.
Head of development Julia Read, and development manager Emma Suckling are committed to raising £170,000 a year. It is not an easy job, and every penny is desperately needed.
“That money is key. If it’s £5,000 short, it’s a big deal and will have an impact,” says Julia. “It’s a hard slog, year on year, that requires tenacity, determination, and sometimes bloody mindedness. You can never take your foot off the accelerator.”
The unique theatre may be one of the country’s oldest and most historic, but its public sector funding is among the lowest.
It receives only a third of the average amount, and bringing in the money to keep it going is a monumental task.
“There is a big discrepancy in public sector funding for the arts,” said Julia. “We get only 12 percent while the national average is 36 percent.
“Our annual turnover is £1.6 million-plus and we pretty much break even with a slight surplus.”
Three years ago the Theatre Royal lost its Arts Council funding leaving a hole in its budget of more than £100,000 a year.
“The theatre suffered a degree of mismanagement in the past, so we are having to re-establish our credentials with the Arts Council.
“Our director Karen Simpson and finance director Adrian Grady are working hard to do that.
“But this theatre has a disproportional reliance on private support,” she explained.
With only 346 seats it cannot pack in huge crowds, and making tickets more expensive would risk alienating the audience.
Bury is also considered a wealthy area so attracting funding can be harder.
Grants currently include £130,000 a year from Suffolk County Council and £60,000 from St Edmundsbury Borough Council.
The rest is self-generated – ticket sales, bar profits, fundraising including sponsorship, plus extras like hiring the theatre for conferences or even weddings.
Couples can tie the knot on stage, with guests watching from the auditorium.
There are few days when nothing is going on, although everything must fit round the theatre’s annual programme of almost 200 different shows.
“We have to get 13 percent of our income through fundraising activities,” said Julia. “Also, we need to find extra funding for projects.
“The theatre does a lot of outreach work with charities – it’s a key part of our ethos and responsibility.”
Emma is responsible for fundraising events which bring in an annual £40,000.
“We do up to 15 a year,” she says. “They include the panto gala, flower festivals, and dinners on stage.
“We’ve had cooking demonstrations, and an operatic dinner with the singers performing among the diners.”
Many celebrities support the theatre by giving their time free for “an evening with” sessions.
Those who have already helped include Lesley Garrett, Nigel Havers, Joanna Lumley, and Michael Parkinson.
Fundraising events this year include singer Clare Presland on January 29, Ipswich Town Legends on February 5, Ruthie Henshall and her Band on March 5, and The Haywood Sisters on March 16.
“Because this theatre is so special people love performing here. They fall in love with it,” said Emma.
“They are very mindful that this is a community theatre. It means so much to so many different people.”
Julia’s role includes getting sponsorship from businesses, which brings in £65,000 a year, and individuals.
“I work with the business community who find that sponsorship can raise their profile. We have a large audience that is potentially part of their customer base.
“We also have individual giving schemes. People can become Patrons, or Friends of the Theatre.
“It’s about developing and sustaining these relationships. More than 90 independent donors and charity trusts support us .
“Nurturing our donors is vital, giving them something back and letting them know how appreciated they are.”
But seeking financial support for the arts can be difficult. “They don’t have the emotional appeal of some charities,” said Julia. “They are about enhancement rather than life or death.”
A vital contribution comes from volunteer front of house stewards, marketing assistants, and heritage guides, who save the theatre almost £100,000 a year.
Julia and Emma share great pride in the theatre. “We go over and above what we have to do, because we want to,” said Julia. “It’s a marvellous environment in which to work.”
To become a Theatre Royal Friend or Patron contact Julia on 01284 892942, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.