The dust is setting around The Byre Theatre after its sudden liquidation last month, and a passionate and dedicated community in St Andrews can, at the very least, congratulate themselves on bringing the battle for its future to national attention.
With The Byre about to enter its 80th year, the livelihoods of its tireless workforce had seemed largely secure: a move to join Fife Cultural Trust (FCT), which would align The Byre’s endeavours with those of other Fife cultural venues, promised a future for a venue which had suffered in the recent and significant cutbacks by Creative Scotland and by Fife Council. However, once the extent of The Byre’s swelling debts became apparent, FCT backed down from the agreement because of the fear that taking on such debt might spell disaster for the Trust itself.
Whilst the worth of the theatre was apparent to Fife Council, they apparently felt unable to maintain the level of funding afforded to The Byre given the recent years of recession and financial restraints Nevertheless, their support had indicated their appreciation for the venue’s ability to host international events, most notably the poetry festival, “StAnza”, and to present the facets of St Andrews culture that exist beyond golf.
Significant changes to Arts sector funding by Creative Scotland provoked wide-spread condemnation of the organisation’s shoddy treatment to so many of Scotland’s promising talents. The removal of flexible two-year funding, which The Byre Theatre had previously enjoyed, to be replaced by single-project based funding, meant a shift from ““ for many organisations, thereby thwarting the ability of companies to consider long-term strategies. The anger over the harm done to Scottish Arts eventually led to the resignation of Andrew Dixon and Venu Dhupa, two senior members of the funding body.
The renewed interest being shown by Creative Scotland, in helping salvage the theatre from its closure, has sparked anger and disillusionment amongst former employees of The Byre, as the previous relationship between the organisations is seemingly ‘swept under the carpet’. As the theatre’s situation is pushed to the forefront of a very political argument, it must be remembered that The Byre is but one of the many victims of the funding shake-up, and that while St Andrews dreams of seeing its phoenix rise, this renewed collaboration must only be a forward move.
Co-ordinated and deter-mined supporters forced The Byre’s plight on to the Scottish Parliament’s agenda within a week, provoking debate across industry forums and promoting the import-ance of a physical cultural centre within communities. Having added international appeal is no doubt financially beneficial to the area, but it will be amongst community projects that the loss of the venue will be most immediately felt. Many such projects spring to mind – The Byre Youth Theatre, focussed as it was on educational development of young people through creative, personal and teamwork skills; Haydays, with its wonderful variety of creative opportunities for over-50s, from which the Taiko drumming group, ‘ByreRhythm’ was born. Many other projects, which included schools and communities, owed their existence to the theatre’s lottery-funded education and outreach programme. None of these vital entities would have been able to establish the foundations they have today without the opportunity which the venue and hub afforded.
There are lessons to be learned from this unfortunate situation, and it is to the credit of the local community that these can be so fully explored. Given that news of the company’s history of debt, accrued since the opening of the new building, has only now come to light, there is a palpable need for better financial transparency. Had this been in place, the community would have been alerted to these difficulties much sooner. Perhaps too, Sean Connery, as Patron of the theatre, could have lent his voice to the campaign two years ago when the flexible funding was withdrawn. Hindsight, though, is a wondrous thing. But whatever the reasons, and wherever the blame, twenty-five people lost their jobs, and this in an area, and at a time, when alternative opportunities are few.
The Byre Theatre, as an institution, will surely rise again, but this may not be for some time. With further cuts to FCT’s own budget, the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy will also be forced to face tough choices. At least, the community of St Andrews has shown that, with sufficient resolve, local people have the tools to raise a national commotion.