On September 1939, at the start of the start of World War II, the government ordered the closure of all theatres throughout Britain, fearing that large congregations of people would be susceptible to aerial bombardment. It was quickly realised that theatres were vital to the morale and wellbeing of the general public and The Gaiety Theatre, Ayr was the first in Britain to open its doors providing welcome entertainment to the public and troops stationed locally.
As we know, on March 2020 the government again prohibited theatres from opening, this time due to a global pandemic however unlike 1939, the theatres remained closed. Current restrictions mean that the viability of most theatres is questionable. In its 120-year history the Gaiety has survived two fires, two World Wars, numerous closures, threat of demolition and now a pandemic. On most of these occasions the theatre was rescued by the endeavours of the local community, even pre-pandemic over two hundred community volunteers helped run the building.
The immediate cessation of all performances at the venue caused a huge amount of anxiety in the short term but Jeremy Wyatt, Chief Executive of the Gaiety, explains, “the speed at which emergency funding became available, firstly for third sector organisations from Scottish Government was startling. Initially we weren’t thinking of anything other than survival and getting through, It then seemed quite quickly, that it was going to last much longer and again we got more money for wellbeing, third sector, support and we started doing work in the community”
Pre-pandemic the Gaiety was mainly a receiving house, meaning that they curated a programme of touring performances created by other production companies. Although they did run community projects – Heritage Project, Rural Touring Network and the Creative Learning Network; a reduction in core funding from public agencies and a debt incurred from the capital refurbishment meant a greater emphasis on income generation from the main theatre productions. This created a dichotomy for the theatre – a move toward popular entertainment would mean it was less likely to attract arts funding. However in the winter season of 2019 they had just produced their first in-house panto Jack and the Beanstalk to great acclaim and increased ticket sale and they were in preparation to build on this success when Covid hit.
Again, as in WWII, the Gaiety was one of the first in theatre to release an original piece, this time created and filmed in lockdown. In partnership with Borderline Theatre, they produced Miraculous an online film. As well as this, funding enabled the theatre to deliver a range of workshops for the community, using leading Scottish visual artists and playwrights like Monster Chetwynd and Douglas Maxwell. Building on these successes they secured grants for Heritage Lottery Fund and the Preforming Arts Relief fund and produced an adaptation of the heritage production A Whirl Around the Gaiety. This promenade performance was developed as part of my own PhD research (a partnership between the Gaiety and UWS) that had been created from the memories and experiences of the community and looking at the intangible cultural heritage of the theatre.
External funding, along with Creative Scotland – Culture Collective Fund has allowed the Gaiety to increase their development and projects within communities. They have created a new permanent post of Creative Engagement Director, currently job shared by Robbie Gordon and Jack Nurse who are co-founders of theatre company Wonderfools. The main remit of the post is to create stories with and for communities in Ayrshire. Jeremy Wyatt explains the shift in focus “We have become a producing organisation involved in producing film and digital but also we have got heavily involved in working in communities. We are now doing a lot of work in areas like Wallacetown which is one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, we are working alongside other people there, using culture as a regeneration tool and addressing the exclusion and lack of cultural rights.”
This community engagement also aims to integrate the community into their professional work as evidenced by their recent online play Meet Jan Black – written by playwright Johnny McKnight and starring Maureen Beattie who appeared with a community cast.
So far the Gaiety has employed over one hundred artists and delivered numerous community projects and with several in development such as There’s an Alien in Ayrshire conceived by Bea Webster where schoolchildren will teach the Aliens sign language.
But how will these community projects fair when we return to some sort of normality and the theatre opens its doors? Jeremy Wyatt explains the vision,
“in a way much closer to what the Gaiety was to the community fifty years ago when people of all walks of life came to the theatre as a major part of what they did, 200,000 tickets sold a year, well I’d be saying we’ll have 200,000 creative participations, half of them will be outside the theatre.”
The Gaiety’s work in the community seems assured.
Len McCaffer is an arts manager, writer/director & PhD candidate at UWS