Reopen The Byre!


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BYRE THEATRE for the Scotsman Magazine, 14.12.13.

THROUGH THE ARCHWAY from South Street, across what was once the Abbey Street farmyard, through a sparkle of fairy lights, and in under the beautifully-designed roof edged with red Fife pantiles, at exactly the right height to reflect the old domestic architecture of the space. It’s one of my favourite trips of the year, up to St. Andrews to see the Christmas show; last year, around this time, I was writing a review of the Byre Theatre’s far-from-conventional version of Snow White, directed by Gordon Barr of Glasgow’s Bard In The Botanics season, and featuring teams of young performers from the Byre youth theatre.

This year, though, there is no panto at the Byre; because this gorgeous state-of-the-art building – easily the most beautiful small theatre in Scotland, opened as recently as 2001 after a £5.5 million lottery-funded rebuilding programme – is dark and closed, and has been since 25 January this year, when the organisation declared itself insolvent, and ceased operations overnight. The reasons for the scale and suddenness of the failure are complex, and include the Scottish Arts Council’s decision, back in 2006, to cease the funding of theatre production at St. Andrews, and to ask the theatre to reinvent itself as a receiving house for touring shows.

The truth is, though, that many theatres in Scotland have survived similar decisions, and emerged in good shape. The Brunton Theatre at Musselburgh, now a thriving music, theatre and dance venue with a strong community programme, is an outstanding example; and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there were weaknesses of management and governance, at the Byre, that helped to make a disaster out of what could have been a manageable crisis.

If the failure of the Byre raises big questions about the Scottish arts scene’s heavy dependence on the wisdom and expertise of purely voluntary boards, though, it has also exposed a striking lack of urgency among all the official bodies involved, led by Fife Council – who are in the process of transferring the management of their theatres to a new body, Fife Cultural Trust – and Creative Scotland, whose new boss Janet Archer seemed not to have been briefed on the Byre closure when she visited the area a few weeks ago. A meeting in St. Andrews in November, attended by more than 100 local activists, was told that Fife Council is willing to commit £250,00 a year in funding for the Byre, and Creative Scotland £100,000 a year for three years; and that a plan is in place to reopen the building temporarily, in Spring 2014, for the town’s two high-profile festivals, the Fife Jazz Festival and the StAnza Poetry Festival. Members of the public were left wondering, though, why those involved are not willing to make similar arrangements for the many community and creative groups who also use the theatre. “You say that the festivals are critically reliant on the Byre,” said a youth theatre leader to Fife Cultural Trust boss Grant Ward . “Well, we are critically reliant on the Byre too!”

Amid all the delay and blame-laying, though, it is perhaps worth remembering the origins of the Byre, back in 1933, as an amateur drama space set up in an old cowshed; and pondering whether the great moving spirit behind the theatre, Alex B. Paterson – for whom the main Byre auditorium is named – would not be spinning in his grave at the thought of St. Andrews theatre fans sitting around waiting for a bunch of distant bureaucrats to decide when they can reopen a theatre which is, in every important sense, theirs. Occupy the Byre? I could never advocate aything so rash. But Alex Paterson and his friends certainly occupied a byre once, in the interests of St. Andrews theatre; and eighty years on, it’s perhaps time to rediscover some of that grassroots spirit, and to give the high heid-yins in Dunfermline and Edinburgh a sharp and seasonal panto-style kick in the rear, to roars of applause from the audience.



One response to “Reopen The Byre!

  1. Friends of the Byre – Community Trust to run the Byre Theatre?

    At the meeting held at St Andrews Town Hall in November, there was much public concern about the slow progress towards the re-opening of the Byre Theatre. Concern was also expressed about two Festivals gaining use of the building when it was still officially closed. Soon after, it was reported that the Leader of Fife Council had been in discussion with the Prinipal of St Andrews University about their interest in the Byre Theatre. The Committee of the Friends have requested a meeting with the four local Councillors, but in the meantime have been discussing ways in which the local community could be more involved in the fruture operation of the Byre Theatre.

    The Committee have had a meeting with a representative from COSS (Community Ownership Support Services) about possible community operation of the Byre. A copy of their proposal document has been sent to Grant Ward of Fife Council requesting that the Council permit a period of public consultation. The Friends hope to act as a research and steering group promoting wider community consultation and the possible establishment of a Community Trust with the skills, ability and funding to run the Byre Theatre as a Community Theatre – a cultural hub for N E Fife.

    The Friends understand that in the current economic climate local authorities have to make hard decisions regarding the possible disposal of assets and balancing the needs of service provision. However, they believe that if the community has a stake in an asset such as the Byre Theatre, it can play a part in securing the facilities for the continued provision, and further development, of local services to meet the needs of all sections of the community. Also, the asset could provide a focus for on-going community activities and play a part in economic and community regeneration of the area in to the future.

    Moira Cockburn, Chair, Friends of the Byre, 01334 476931

    Alan Tricker, Secretary, Friends of the Byre, 01334 474981

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