JOYCE MCMILLAN on NEW BEGINNING FOR THE BYRE? for the Scotsman Magazine, 13.9.14. _________________________________________________________
IT WAS A JUST A brief piece of news, flitting past on my laptop screen; it said that director Gordon Barr and his Glasgow-based Bard In the Botanics company had just been commissioned to present Jack And The Beanstalk, as the 2014 Christmas panto at the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews. As casual updates go, though, this one could hardly have been more welcome; in that it signalled the return of one of Scotland’s best-loved theatre venues, dark since its operating company slid into bankruptcy in January of last year, and now about to reopen, following the signing in mid-August of a new deal between Fife Council and the University of St. Andrews.
Under the deal, the University leases the theatre from the council for the peppercorn rent of £300 a year, and becomes wholly responsible for its operation as a year-round arts venue. This week, the University announced that it has appointed its much-admired Director of Music, Michael Downes, as artistic director of the Byre, and the building’s current acting manager, Stephen Sinclair, as general manager. And it falls to Downes and Sinclair – who have already worked together on music events at the Byre – to begin the implementation of what is now a hugely ambitious plan for the theatre, detailing its responsibilities to the cultural life of Fife and Scotland, its huge role in supporting community arts activity in St Andrews, its hopes for developing new partnerships with professional theatre in Scotland, and its entirely new function as the operating base for the University’s Music Centre, and as teaching space for several university departments.
Whether all of this can be achieved remains an open question. Fife Council and Creative Scotland would not, after all, have been so eager to sign over this beautiful public building – built with more than £4 million of Lottery grants and public donations, just over a decade ago – if it had not been for the inconvenient truth that it has been costing at least £250,000 a year to run; some wise investment from the University may help it to start generating more income in future, but the initial willingness to invest has to be there.
For all that, though, the new agreement between the University and Fife – radically altered and reworked over the last six months – offers a basis on which the Byre can begin to re-establish its place in Scotland’s cultural life. Lorne Boswell of Equity, the actors’ union – which was at first highly critical of the plan for a university takeover – believes that the new agreement offers a much wider vision of the Byre’s future, and describes himself as cautiously optimistic.
For St Andrews, of course, this change represents another decisive shift in the balance between town and gown; and there are those of us who may sigh, a little, to think of the time, back in the 1930’s, when a few St Andrews citizens took the initiative, and created a theatre for themselves, in an old cowshed off Abbey Street.
As Lorne Boswell points out, though, with a cash-strapped Fife Council and a hesitant Creative Scotland unwilling to take responsibility for the Byre’s future, at the crucial moment the University was the only game in town. The provisions of the Lottery grant, which specify that the Byre should be run as a theatre, apply for another 12 years; the new deal for the theatre’s future can be reviewed after 3 years, and Equity and others will be monitoring closely to see that the terms of the agreement are met. So now, it only remains for everyone who cares about theatre in Scotland to wish Michael Downes and his team well in bringing our most beautiful small theatre back to life. It’s a huge task, but a thrilling one; and I – among many others – will be there to make a wish, when the lights go up on Jack And The Beanstalk, this Christmas time.