It is an understatement to say that the Covid-19 pandemic has been challenging for local amateur theatre and music groups. Productions and concerts had to be cancelled or postponed from March 2020, in some cases even as they were very close to actual performance. Some groups were able to continue with online rehearsals and performances whilst others decided to suspend operations. We missed not only performing but also the fellowship of meeting at rehearsals to act, sing or play our instruments together, and to socialise.
It is fantastic that groups are now restarting and some performances have already happened. But it is a sobering reality that many members of our traditional audiences – even though fully inoculated – do not yet feel safe enough to go into a theatre, church or concert hall. It will take time for this to sort itself out. Getting bums on seats has always been a challenge – especially for those companies whose production budgets rely on 80%+ attendance – and Covid-19 has only made this worse.
But we remain positive and look forward to continuing to put on the top class performances that audiences have come to expect from the amateur sector in the Derby area.
I am afraid that news about the future of the Guildhall Theatre, Derby does not improve with time. Unfortunately the Council's position remains that they are taking an holistic view of the repair and refurbishment of the building and that feasibility studies are in progress. These studies include looking into using adjoining buildings which are in the Council's ownership. However, funding will be a challenge and it is likely that the Council will be seeking grants from appropriate bodies. DATA has submitted its wish list of improvements including moving the bar to the adjoining building which would make the existing bar area available for additional dressing-room and storage purposes.
On your behalf, DATA has continued to press Derby City Council for a commitment to reopen the Guildhall as soon as possible. When I asked Councillor Ross McCristal, the Council's Cabinet Member for Leisure and Culture, for a timescale, his response was: “In my opinion it is unlikely to reopen before 2025 but everything possible will be done to reopen the Guildhall as soon as possible inline with our aspirational vision for the Guildhall.”
Whilst the situation with regard to the Guildhall is very disappointing, one positive aspect is that the Council has fulfilled its promise to provide a Temporary Performance Area in the Market Place. At least two DATA member societies have used the facility and this has helped to maintain their presence and profile in the city.
You will have seen in the media that Derby City Council have obtained planning permission to demolish the Assembly Rooms and are in discussions with the University of Derby over the possibility of building a replacement for Derby Theatre on the site. Yes that means yet another feasibility study by consultants but, if the project actually happens (some may say that's a big 'if') then a new theatre plus a refurbished Guildhall would potentially transform not only the Market Place but also the whole of the Cathedral Quarter. We await further developments with interest but we're not holding our breath!
One project which does seem to be progressing is the proposed Becketwell Arena on the old Debenhams / Duckworth Square site. This is a joint development by Derby City Council and St James Securities for various uses including a 3,500 capacity arena located on the site of the former Pennine Hotel, Pink Coconut nightclub and Laurie House offices. The arena design also incorporates a smaller performance space but details of this are yet to be revealed. Planning permission has been granted and ASM Global has been selected to manage the venue.
Another item of positive news is that Derby has been long-listed to be City of Culture in 2025 together with seven other cities. Given the long-term closure of the Guildhall and the Assembly Rooms, one could be forgiven for viewing this with a degree of amused skepticism. However, if Derby is successful, it would result in a huge increase in investment and profile for the cultural scene in the city and this would provide great opportunities for amateurs to participate and benefit. DATA is therefore fully supporting the City of Culture bid. The Bid Director is Adam Buss who many of you will know has supported amateur theatre by compering the annual Eagle Awards ceremony.
Speaking of the Eagle Awards, Cheryl Mitchell of Derby Theatre tells me that the plan is that “judging will not be returning until June 2022. This is to ensure a fair and level playing field for all companies as not everyone has been able to produce a show for the 21/22 season. Therefore, we are hoping that a return to normal will be expected ready for the 22/23 season and we can start accepting entries in June 2022.”
Do please continue to submit your organisation's productions for inclusion in the DATA Diary. It is a free service as part of your very reasonable membership subscription. You can either do this yourself online by logging into the Diary system, or submit details to our DATA Diary Administrator – Dave Williamson – at email@example.com The monthly Diary email has a wide circulation and events are simultaneously posted on the DATA Facebook page and Twitter feed for sharing through social media channels. Overall it's a very cost-effective and simple marketing tool.
Finally, may I wish all a very happy festive season and all good fortune for your future ventures.
Derby Arts and Theatre Association (DATA)