For decades Swindon gained a national reputation for excellence in its wealth of amateur performing arts’ opportunities, as well as its vibrant cultural community comprising film-goers, writers, readers, thinkers and poets.
However, as austerity measures threaten arts’ subsidies in other parts of the UK, established groups in the town are facing an uncertain future due to the inflated costs of using venues such as the Wyvern Theatre and the Arts Centre in Old Town.
Swindon Film Society has been enjoying a varied programme of fringe and foreign cinema for 65 years, and its 300 members are very satisfied that the Arts Centre auditorium is the perfect venue for its activities. However, the cost of using the council-owned venue has increased by over 100 per cent in the past three years, a situation which society organiser Barbara Hoffbauer finds very difficult.
She said: “Our members love the Arts Centre but when the cost of showing a film has gone from £210 to £430 in the space of a couple of years, the viability of it has become precarious. We run the society voluntarily and it’s very stressful to be faced with such financial risks.”
In November, Arts Centre hirers met with Cllr Garry Perkins, cabinet member for Regeneration and Culture, to express their concerns. Commenting on the meeting Barbara said: “Cllr Perkins assured us that we wouldn’t face another price hike next year. So as long as that’s the case we will continue to work with the Arts Centre.”
The musical theatre company Stagestruck, which is approaching the thirtieth anniversary of its debut performance, has traditionally taken over the Wyvern for one week in May, but prohibitive cost prevented use of the venue in 2012.
Explaining the situation, Stagestruck producer Geoff Marsh said: “The venue charge for the week in May 2011 was over 80 per cent of our ticket sales, which is unsustainable when I’ve got musicians and other major costs to cover.
“In 2012 we moved to the Arts Centre, which was better financially but it wasn’t necessarily what our audience wanted, because they prefer the Wyvern.
Because the Arts Centre is smaller we had to reduce the size of the company by half, as well as employ fewer musicians which fell short of our renowned high quality of presentation.”
The Wyvern has been under the management of HQ Theatres, a subsidiary of Qdos Productions Ltd, since it reopened in September 2007 following the council’s £1.3m refurbishment of the venue. Geoff perceives that although the Wyvern has been a proud supporter of local societies’ work in the past, there has been a gradual reduction of local amateur performances.
Expressing his frustration Geoff said: “I find it quite shocking. I don’t think the management is interested in amateur companies and the council is either not controlling the management or can’t. Our amateur arts community is at the heart of the town but the lack of support from Swindon Council is killing us.”
In a statement Wyvern Theatre marketing manager Richard Loftus said: “The Wyvern is passionate about engaging the local community in various outreach projects. We have not seen a huge decline in hires by local performing groups, although these often change. We are delighted that groups from outside Swindon are also making use of the Wyvern.
“Stagestruck last performed at the Wyvern Theatre in 2011. We have always had an excellent relationship with Geoff Marsh. When Geoff took the decision not to perform at the Wyvern, he took the time to say how supportive the theatre and its staff have always been to them.
“Whilst Stagestruck may not have performed here in 2012, it does not reflect a reduction in presentations by amateur companies at the Wyvern. Nor does it reflect our relationship with community groups.”