Last week’s debate into the future of both the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera and the Theatre Royal certainly pricked the ears of local arts aficionados.
Frank O’Donoghue’s letter to this newspaper queried the absence of a ‘Plan B’ for the WIFLO’s 50th staging, which won’t take place until next year given the imminent closure of the Theatre Royal for renovations.
The absence of the festival from the city’s arts calendar is a source of disappointment to the many patrons and musical societies who’ve contributed to its yearly success these past five decades.
The debate, which subsequently mushroomed into an airwave-led discussion on the future role (if any, some have suggested) of amateur societies in the Theatre Royal itself was lively, to say the least.
Theatre Royal Chairman Eamonn Flavin mounted a vigorous defence of Theatre management, describing claims that the Cork Opera House is cheaper to rent nightly as “rubbish”.
In further reaction, Theatre Director Ben Barnes said that ‘high-end’ rental of the theatre currently stands at €1650 nightly plus 21 per cent VAT, coming to a total of €1996.50.
He also provided a quote for the Cork Opera House’s rent – €8125 (VAT price included), a rate which increases if there is more than one daily performance on Leeside.
On two occasions last Thursday, Eamonn Flavin pointedly referred to the theatre’s mission statement as proof of the venue’s continued commitment to the community and amateur productions.
It reads: “Our Mission is to create, develop, produce and present a vital and dynamic programme of theatre, music-theatre, dance and other live performances for the people of Waterford and the South East.”
It’s fair to say that, over the course of any given year, a tremendous variety of productions have been known to tread the Theatre Royal boards. From arthouse to comedy, from pantomime to musical, the Theatre Royal has had them all.
“We deliver this through focusing on an original and challenging body of work of high quality and imagination, not constrained by the notion of an existing audience but building and developing audiences for the new and unexpected.”
It’s in the best interest of those running the theatre to get as many bums on seats as possible – after all the management must endeavour to make it as viable a venture as they can.
“We aim to communicate the wonder and power of theatre, offering value for money, excellence and inspirational creativity to those touched by our work. We present work of professional artists, with our own in-house professional productions and community-based production.”
As someone who has enjoyed many nights in the Theatre Royal over the years, both in the stalls and on the stage, the notion of amateur societies being ‘priced out’ of performing there is worrying.
Before there’s a torch-lit procession outside these offices, please note the use of the word ‘notion’. Anyone associated with modern musical society productions knows that few, if any aiming for a high standard can be put together cheaply.
Couple this with the increasingly high expectations of the theatre goer, who expects a professional standard from amateur performers once €20 is slipped into the box office and you can see where we’re headed.
It may be far from Pullman seats that some of us were reared but audiences nowadays demand the best, both in terms of how they’re accommodated along with the standard being provided on stage.
Maintaining consistently high standards means having to pay top dollar. When it comes to lighting rigs, sound systems, costumes, props and the like, high costs are nigh impossible to avoid.
And while there may have been some credence in Eamonn Flavin’s argument that societies need to budget better, rather than simply use the theatre as “a whipping boy” when it comes to rent, it’s easier said than done.
The devotion exemplified by society members in the city, Carrick-on-Suir and New Ross in keeping their respective shows on the road over the years has rarely been anything other than exemplary.
But dreams of big theatre nights do not come cheaply and without the magnificent support of the public, many groups would have long since folded.
Rent undoubtedly forms part of the financial burden carried by amateur groups, but it is one of several overheads the societies of today now face when putting on any production.
The Theatre Royal’s management face a consistently difficult balancing act – to provide its audience with top class professional acts while also fulfilling the community remit it must never be allowed to discard.
For it is a place held in enormous affection by the people of Waterford – the one and the same people who rescued the theatre from oblivion.
And, wherever one stands on last week’s debate, that fact must never, ever, be forgotten. The Theatre Royal was, is and must always be the people’s theatre.