Theatres will have to adapt if they want to survive in the post-covid restriction world, says the founder of the Sarah Thorne Theatre Company in Broadstairs.
Michael Wheatley-Ward, who was formerly at the helm of the Theatre Royal, founded the Sarah Thorne Theatre which was incorporated as a community interest company in 2008.
Michael has more than 50 years experience in the industry working with leading actors, directors and producers from West End playhouses to independent theatre.
He funded his journey into theatre by building up a series of menswear shops, a business which still trades online today.
The Sarah Thorne Theatre, like many entertainment and leisure businesses, was hit hard by covid closures stretching from the first lockdown in March 2020 to the venue’s reopening in September 2021, several weeks after the majority of pandemic restrictions were finally lifted.
Michael said: “Audiences are slowly coming back and we are starting to get more regulars again. The business model for the Sarah Thorne means we will survive. The venue is multi-use – with other organisations such as Kent Adult Education at the site – and I do not have to have fixed seating. It means we can move it around, we can have table seating for concerts and we are just more flexible.”
Michael, who is a West End Angel donating to the industry, said despite reopening many of the London playhouses are suffering because they are reliant in large part on overseas tourists.
He said: “They are not doing the business they should be because it is just the home market. There are a lot of productions ready to replace the more traditional ones but they are going to need a lot of cash backing.”
Closer to home Michael says it is very sad to see the Theatre Royal and Winter Gardens closures while Thanet council makes decisions on the future of the venues. The Theatre Royal is earmarked for a £2m refurbishment and then it is expected a new operator will be brought in. However, there is as yet no firm timeline for that despite the theatre being due to shut at the end of this month.
The Winter Gardens faces an even more uncertain outlook with doors closing in August. Some £300,000 will be used – if granted – for a ‘project delivery plan with public and private sector engagement.’
Specialist architects will be used to identify and cost required works at the venue, however it is expected to be shut for at least a year.
Micheal, who was general manager at the Theatre Royal until Thanet council bought it as ‘owner of last resort’ in 2007. The building was shut for a six month refurb programme and all staff were made redundant. It was then leased back to the Margate Theatre Royal Trust on a peppercorn rent until 2012 when the Trust went into administration. Your Leisure took the site on in what was supposed to be an interim measure but have been running it ever since – until now.
Michael said: “It is very sad. We have offered the Sarah Thorne’s help the council but haven’t heard anything back.
“I haven’t got capacity at Sarah Thorne to take shows from the Winter Gardens but some from my old theatre (Theatre Royal) have been transferred to us.”
Michael says theatres do not necessarily thrive if they are the only venue and competition is good for business. He added: “There is still the Marlowe and Dartford and in Thanet us, the Tom Thumb Theatre, but it will be interesting to see what happens.
“Sarah Thorne has the ideal model for smaller venues, sharing with other uses, being flexible. It feels like the world’s a circular with pubs now doing more music and comedy for free if you sit there with a drink and theatre becoming more music hall again. It is all up for change.”
Sarah Thorne Theatre upcoming shows
Saturday 30th April at 7.30pm
“Where is Mrs Christie”
The mystery of Agatha Christie’s Eleven lost days,
Starring Liz Grand as Agatha Christie.
Sunday 8th May at 7.30pm
“Naked Hope” a play about Quentin Crisp.
Mark Farrelly brings to life one of the most
Flamboyant personalities of the 20th century.
Sunday 15th May at 3pm
“PIANO CONCERT” with David Ruddock
An afternoon of varied and popular piano music.
Saturday 21st May at 7.30pm
“SPIKEDRIVERS” IN CONCERT.
“Blues and Roots at its best.
Friday 27th May at 7.30pm and Saturday 28th May at 2.30pm and 7.30pm
“ROCK AROUND THE DECADES”
Come and hear the music from the 50‘s, 60’s 70’s & 80’s.
Full details of ticket prices and how to book at www.sarahthornetheatre.co.uk (booking fees apply) or ring Ticketsource on 0333 666 4466.