29 January 2013
The avoidable death
of a much-loved
St Andrews: a town without a theatre. Photograph by Islay McLeod
The collapse of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews is none the less sad for being predictable. Last Thursday the directors hired an accountant to look at the books. There was no need to hang around. He advised them that the company was bust and should seek voluntary liquidation. This week the curtain will come down on 80 years of theatrical history.
So what? Small theatre; few dead. There are larger, more important victims of the recession in larger, more important towns than St Andrews. But the loss of a theatre is – or should be – an important event, and for various reasons it is worth pausing over this particular grave.
The Byre was the vision of Alex Paterson – A B Paterson as he styled himself professionally. He was a journalist and a prolific writer of homespun dialect comedies, and he was the leading light in an amateur society, the St Andrews Play Club. You would not have recognised him as a thespian. He was ruddy and plain-spoken. He got on with it – a practical chap.
In the early 1930s the players found the cost of hiring the Town Hall prohibitive and devised an enterprising solution. Led by Paterson, they leased a semi-derelict cow shed at the Abbey Street dairy farm and converted it into a little theatre with 74 seats. There was no restaurant and no bar in those days. The most the Byre could offer its customers was an ice cream. The play was the thing.
At first the Byre was a purely amateur endeavour, but in 1946 Paterson and his friends decided to engage a small professional company for nine months of each year. In a town of only 10,000 people? It did seem a hopelessly ambitious idea. Paterson made it work by cutting overheads to the bone and hiring a group of young actors.
Most of them had some experience playing walk-on parts with larger companies. The Byre gave them a chance to stretch themselves in more demanding roles. Technicians, often fresh from college, acquired skills in stage management, set design and lighting. These embryo pros – actors and technicians alike – were expected to co-operate in every department of the business, even down to the distribution of handbills in the streets. 'Group theatre' Paterson called it.
His artistic policy was ingenious. During the winter, when the indigenous population was swollen by undergraduates at St Andrews University, he presented challenging modern plays with an eye to the student market. In the autumn of 1969 – the season whose programme I have in front of me – the Byre produced 'Waiting for Godot', 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and John Osborne's 'Hotel in Amsterdam'. I doubt that any professional company in Scotland was more courageous in its repertoire.
In the summer, when the students were no longer around, Paterson turned to lighter material more likely to appeal to tourists, including some of his own plays. There was a local tradition that, whenever the Open Championship returned to the home of golf, the play of the week at the local theatre was Paterson's 'The Open'. With this eclectic approach the Byre became part of the furniture, a minor but much-loved Scottish institution, supported each year by a small grant from the Scottish Arts Council.
What went wrong? The Byre started to fail when the building became more important than what went on inside it. The company could not continue indefinitely in a converted cow shed, however charming it was. Alex Paterson recognised this and, in the early 1970s, raised enough money to build a larger theatre with modern facilities.
For a while beyond his death in the late 1980s, the annual season of plays was maintained. But then his successors made a serious error of judgement: they built a larger theatre still. The present one, opened by Sean Connery in 2001, was an immediate financial burden, as buildings often are, and the main ingredients of Paterson's original recipe – low overheads married to small-cast plays – were lost in an increasingly desperate scramble to keep the place viable.
By 2006 the Byre was no longer what they call a 'producing house'. It had surrendered what gives any theatre its sense of identity: it had given up its resident company. Instead it had been reduced to the status of a 'receiving house' for this and that, mostly that; it was a mere 'venue', a place to hang one's coat for a few hours, available for such irrelevances as weddings and conferences as well as any touring shows it could lay its hands on. The building was now everything. But the heart had been ripped out of it.
Creative Scotland delivered the killer blow. Almost as soon as the new arts quango came into being, it withdrew its funding, precipitating the inevitable slide into liquidation. Fife Council, owner of the building, is left to determine what, if anything, should be done with it.
Scotland does not lack such venues as the Byre; they're everywhere now. But it is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for these places. When J B Priestley evoked the magic of arriving in some dark provincial town in winter, and finding an unexpected light on a street corner – the light of the theatre – what he had in mind was a playhouse with a resident company of actors. He would have been captivated by the cow shed, but not much impressed by what it became. This was always an avoidable death.
One day, someone will re-visit Alex Paterson's modest vision and find it surprisingly practical. But first we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that the arts must be 'properly' housed in glittering buildings fit for the consumers of corporate hospitality.
Two boards and a passion used to be enough. They still could be.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review
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