After the Byre theatre’s final curtain, Emma Moore investigates the challenges that student theatre will face, and the new windows of opportunity for the St Andrews Stage.
Most who have worked with the Byre in the recent past are aware that it has not been in good financial shape for some time now. Still, its abrupt closure at the first of the year came as a tremendous shock to everyone, from the casual theatre-goer to the president of Mermaids, Cameron Kirby. “The first I heard of it was the night it happened,” he says.
Although the announcement itself came as an unpleasant post-Christmas surprise, warning signs have been present for some time now. Though the Byre’s technical team is universally praised amongst those who have produced shows at the theatre, those responsible for its overall management consistently left something to be desired. “I got the impression that staff at the Byre were being asked to go beyond their jobs on a frequent basis by management,” says Nick Murphy, former president of the Gilbert and Sullivan society. “By the time I left St Andrews in the summer, as far as I’m aware, the society had not been paid for the tickets we sold for our production of Princess Ida in March.”
The musical Hair was in a similar situation and though money for the tickets has now been received in both cases, the delays cast a shadow upon the financial organization within the Byre.
From a broader perspective, the management’s choice of programming seemed oddly reluctant to embrace student theatre outside of the On the Rocks festival. Opportunities abound in a student driven economy for close relationships with the departments of English and Classical Studies but this wasn’t picked up on by the Byre. Murphy claims that the “programming didn’t seem to appeal to the town-gown audience as strongly as it could have and its marketing to students was a shambles, especially with its relationship to the English Department.”
“The Byre Management were good to the extent that they were supportive of student drama,” he continued, “particularly On The Rocks. Outside of this peroid, however, it seemed like the management were at times reticent to book student shows. That’s understandable to an extent, but when attendance was often poor at certain non-student shows, it was strange that they didn’t embrace Mermaids more.”
The Byre’s marketing programme, although supportive of some student led projects, seemed out of touch with the student demographic which, in a community like St Andrews could be seen as a fatal mistake for the business.
But what does the loss of the Byre mean for the future of theatre in St Andrews? According to Kirby, “The Byre closure is a big blow to Mermaids. With Venue 1 closing in second semester next year and Venue 2 potentially closing at some point, we’re losing a lot of performance spaces. I’m working with the Union to try to secure more use of the Buchanan Theatre to offset this and we’re also investing heavily in the Barron Theatre, as it could be our only venue next year.”
Still, the situation is not altogether dire. Kirby has been working with the On The Rocks Festival to reschedule all of the planned Byre shows for this semester and has managed to find alternative venues for every show, and hope remains for the Byre itself. St Andrews councillor Brian Thomson is “confident” that the Byre Theatre will re-open under new management by late summer.
The Byre’s closure represents a blow to the arts in St Andrews, for students and town-folk alike, but perhaps it also represents an opportunity for those in charge to embrace student theatre more widely under future management. When the Byre re-opens, whenever that may be, let’s hope the new team take advantage of this valuable resource for the benefit of all.