Theatre by Lake in liquidity challenge

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The Independent Online
THE ARCHITECTS were told it must resemble a barn and not be too visible - so the last theatre built this millennium was always going to be a challenge. Tonight, winched into a pristine fly-tower, the curtain will go up for the first time at the pounds 6.25m Theatre by the Lake, built with Lottery money at Keswick on the banks of Derwent Water in Cumbria.

Its designers turned the Lake District's tight planning restrictions to their advantage, taking cues from the area's distinctive architecture - narrow windows hewn through thick Lakeland-stone walls, roof slates hand-cut to an irregular finish. The theatre's directors are acutely aware, however, that design flair will not ensure survival. They will be as taxed as the architects if they are to make the theatre more than another expensive Lottery flop. This location is as remote as they come: they will have to work even harder than Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, Liverpool's Everyman, or the Octagon in Bolton, which have all struggled.

But they do have a healthy theatrical tradition to draw on, even before Brandon Thomas' Charley's Aunt opens to a sell-out main theatre tonight. Where the new theatre sits,there once rested a ramshackle but significant group of blue Portakabins. They made up the Blue Box Theatre, a theatre on wheels that stopped in the same Keswick car park every year until, one season, it broke down and never left.

While most theatres don't know where to turn for audiences in June, the Blue Box at Keswick drew them in their thousands. This has been a bedrock of the new theatre's business plan.

It was tempting for Theatre by the Lake, and part of an initial business plan, to open for the summers only. But when funding was secured and the nature of the new facility became clear, closing it for much of the year was an option that the director, Patric Gilchrist, dismissed.

He aims to generate 65 per cent of his revenue through 38,000 visitors in the five summer months, and attract another 34,000 in the winter. Since the Blue Box's average summer audience totalled 24,000, the targets for both seasons are challenging.

The theatre will get pounds 100,000 in funding for the first year and pounds 130,000 a year thereafter - a quarter of what other regional repertory theatres are receiving, according to Mr Gilchrist. He admits that invention will be necessary: he is a pragmatist who does not expect theatres to live on the arts alone.

"The pattern of regional theatre since the 1960s has been difficult," he said. "We have to reinvent and make it work in a different way."

This means that artistic indulgences are out, and the theatre will offer itself for trade events (one is already booked for November) and conferences and wants a place in local tourism packages. Deals with local hotels are planned. "We must be packaged as a theatre and something else," said Mr Gilchrist. "That something is the location."

Keswick's high number of tourists (75 per cent of them in summer) will help, regularly creating fresh captive audiences. Theatre by the Lake can afford a longer run for its shows, cutting rehearsal costs.

It perhaps has southern tourists in mind for its most intriguing early piece, a little-known 200-year-old play called The Lakers, by James Plumptre. Roughly translated, "lakers" is an old Cumbrian word for "layabouts" and was also used to describe the first townies brave enough to head north for the Lakes.

The choice of script is a brave one. Theatre by the Lake will need as many southern "lakers" as it can lay hands on.