Alive and kicking

May 3, 2017

World-renowned as a ‘crucible of ideas’ and launch pad for many now-famous plays and writers, Live Theatre in Newcastle is also the toast of the cultural world for the unique self-sustaining way in which it funds itself. Deborah Busby meets its chief executive, Jim Beirne

While Live Theatre has long been known as a huge cultural asset to Newcastle, perhaps its contribution to the economy in the city and wider region, alongside its unique self-sustaining business model, is lesser known.

The theatre, much-loved in Newcastle for more than 40 years, is known throughout the cultural world as a launch pad for careers and productions, many of which have gone on to achieve international success, as well as its commitment to youth theatre and developing literacy.

The Pitmen Painters, Dancer (later better known as Billy Elliot) and the more recent Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which won an Olivier Award last month, all began at Live Theatre. Lee Hall, the hugely esteemed creator of all three productions, started out as a young writer at Live Theatre in the 1990s.

Its reputation as an incubator for emerging productions is truly stand-out, and its £6m refurbishment in 2007 has equipped it for well into the future. But aside from its role as a theatre, a charity and creative hub, Live Theatre is in fact built on a unique business model which sees it support not only itself, but also the creation of jobs, the growth of small enterprises and the development of new leisure venues in the fast-developing Quayside area.

Its vast property portfolio, which stretches down Broad Chare and onto the riverfront, supports the creation of jobs and provides homes for new and growing businesses – more than 300 people are now employed across all of the buildings it owns. In a £10m project completed over the course of several years, Live Theatre has created a whole new development around itself, part new-build and part renovation of Listed buildings, to bring a whole new dimension to Newcastle’s Quayside.

Alongside Live Theatre itself, its neighbouring gastropub The Broad Chare is a partnership between Live Theatre and its long-standing partner Terry Laybourne – that venue alone finances one production each year at the theatre. As well as Caffe Vivo and Head of Steam – a joint venture with Camerons – a fourth restaurant, a seafood venue, is set to be unveiled in the Quayside premises formerly known as Flynn’s, following its purchase by the theatre.

The Schoolhouse, an adjoining building dating back to the 1750s, has been renovated into a creative hub, housing a series of growing businesses. Live Works, a sizeable new purpose-built office block occupied by cutting edge tech company Zerolight, stands in previously unused grounds to the rear. Live Tales, a dedicated facility to help develop literacy for school children through the telling of stories, has also been purpose-built by the venue.

Yet back in 2000, when chief executive Jim Beirne first joined Live Theatre, the outlook was very different. Financially challenged, due to a small capital project, the theatre needed to turn around its fortunes to ensure its future.

Sitting in the theatre’s Undercroft bar, a Grade 1 Listed, homely setting where actors socialise with theatregoers after performances, Jim – whose long career in the arts saw him awarded an MBE in 2012 – remembers it well.

“It was certainly a challenging time, but this has always been a much-loved organisation and its creative heart was good, so there was always the desire to support it through this challenge. It was, in fact, relatively easy to turn around – what was needed was a bit of vision and direction,” he says.

“When I first came to Newcastle, this part of the city was nothing like it is today. There was no Millennium Bridge, no Sage Gateshead, not anything like the development there is now. We were mindful of where we were based, and also that we needed to provide for our own future. Even then, before the recession, the public sector was unlikely to have more resources to give us; we couldn’t sell any more seats for productions; we were unlikely to improve fundraising.

“We decided we needed to make more resources for ourselves through a series of social enterprises, which would benefit Live Theatre and the city. Not just in terms of buildings, but also in terms of developing young people’s skills and aspirations, and to support the economy.”

Following the full refurbishment of Live Theatre itself – at a cost of £6m, which saw it re-open with the hugely-acclaimed The Pitmen Painters in 2007 – a plan was devised to redevelop the surrounding area.

Following the opening of Caffe Vivo in 2008, The Broad Chare followed in 2011. The Schoolhouse was purchased and developed in 2011, and permission was then granted for the development of Live Works and Live Tales.

Following consultations with the “very supportive” Newcastle City Council and with funding being secured to finance the hugely ambitious project – including £6.5m from the council, £2m from the Arts Council, £2.1m from the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) and the remainder from local fundraising – work got underway on the latest Live Works project in 2013.

“I think we did it the right way, step by step, one thing at a time. People could see what we were doing and could see our vision, so were willing to ‘buy in’ to it,” says Jim, who is now regularly invited to tell the story of Live Theatre’s success at venues around the world.

“It was a risk, of course, but there is risk in everything. We were motivated by the desire to support the theatre at the same time as making this part of the city a better place. To have created some great art and played a role in the cultural regeneration of this area of Newcastle really is something which gives us pride. It really is great that Live Theatre has done its bit.”

Live Theatre 

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