Play to the Crowd

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by Play to the Crowd's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from Play to the Crowd is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles

Deryck Newland, Chief Executive
Theatre Royal Winchester,
musical theatre summer
school; photo by Stephen
J Cook
Play to the Crowd is the new name of the arts and education
charity organisation which runs a 400-seat heritage theatre
in Winchester as well as Hat Fair, the oldest continually
running outdoor arts festival in the country. The Theatre Royal
Winchester, a listed building originally built in 1850, presents
more than 300 performances a year and welcomes nearly
80,000 visitors. In addition, 150 young people from around the
district participate in workshops and youth theatre every week
and more than 70,000 people attend Hat Fair. The name change
is just one tiny part of a strategy to transform the organisation
for the future. Chief Executive Deryck Newland explains how the
charity is transforming to increase its resilience and sustainability
while continuing to be artistically and socially bold.
Running an arts organisation today is challenging. There is less public investment
and more competition for people’s time and money. Two years ago, our
organisation had an accumulated deficit. Nothing felt possible because there was
no money. Staff posts had been cut, programming had decreased and the roof was
literally leaking.
What follows is not a template for change, as every context is different; nor is it
a panacea – it is tough and there are no miracle cures. It is simply a few thoughts
two years into our change process, which may resonate with some and be useful to
»Chief Executive: Deryck Newland
»Began life in 1914
»Located in Winchester,
»Services: A 400-seat heritage
theatre with touring
professional performances,
home-produced pantomime,
community performances,
participatory activities and an
outdoor arts festival
»No of employees: 24
»The Theatre Royal Winchester
building was originally built
as a hotel in 1850 and so all
subsequent developments of
the building have worked within
the constraints of a building
that was never originally
intended as a theatre, creating a
unique, special and sometimes
challenging footprint.
Play to the Crowd
Highlighting best practice
Changing the mindset
Our journey began internally by
reminding ourselves why we worked
in the arts. A critical base point had to
be belief in ourselves and our purpose.
We then quickly strengthened the
organisation’s skeleton: its people and
their structure and security. This felt
counterintuitive as it required more
money, not less, but it made all the
difference. We eliminated zero hours
contracts in key front-facing roles,
introduced stronger leadership and
communications teams and provided
transparency and accountability for
budget holders.
We also engaged with key external
partners. We presented to the local
council’s cabinet just weeks after
starting. We had to change the
default perception of us carrying a
begging bowl and shotgun into a
more positive image of a responsible
partner supporting their priorities and
strategically worth investing in.
With that in mind, it was critical to
demonstrate a sustainable business
model and proactivity in developing
earned revenues. We had to make
difficult decisions quickly as time was
not our friend. We restructured ticket
pricing, eliminating concession rates
for senior citizens while prioritising
under 26s. We also incentivised
more people to become friends of
the charity. We changed visiting
companies’ deals to retain more
ticket revenues specifically to invest
in fixing our building, starting with
the roof. We successfully applied to
resilience schemes enabling us to work
with Cause 4 and Creative United.
This contributed invaluable external
expertise while also rebuilding the trust
and confidence of partners.
Repositioning as a charity
Simultaneously we began the complex
but transformational rebranding
process. It will have been two and a
half years in the planning by the time
we finally go public, but it is time
well spent if shared and owned by
all. We needed to be explicit that we
were a charity. Most people thought
the Theatre Royal Winchester was a
commercial operator and had no idea
the same entity delivered Hat Fair. Our
new vision is to “Delight and Unite”
and our new overarching charity
name is Play to the Crowd. We are
passionate about opening our doors
wide, bringing communities together
and championing art for everybody.
We believe our compelling charitable
purpose is the transformational power
of joining in and getting creative,
so have created a third operating
brand, Playmakers, to bring this to the
attention of the public more clearly.
We also had to crack on with earning
more money. We increased the
intensity of programming by 30 per
cent. This was a risk, but by also
investing in more marketing and
engagement, audiences also grew
30 per cent by year two. We secured
an extended lease and planning
permission to begin a three-phased
development programme for the
building. Phase one will transform our
Hat Fair performance in
Winchester Cathedral
Close; photo by
Adrienne Photography
We are
about opening
our doors
wide, bringing
together and
art for
front of house into a dynamic creative
café, presenting performance more
informally and welcoming a wider
public into the building. We can now
earn revenue for more hours in the
day; “sweating the asset” is not a
pretty term but we need to embrace
these realities in the arts today.
Celebrating the art
No amount of sweaty assets are worth
it, though, if you are not presenting
or enabling great art to, for and with
more people. Any change programme
is doomed if it forgets its central
purpose. Our enhanced programme
at the Theatre Royal Winchester
needs to earn 25 per cent more than
its direct costs with just 400 seats
and one auditorium. We rise to that
challenge by cross-subsidising. There
was one busy week in May 2019
which beautifully exemplifies this,
during which we hosted Paul Merton’s
Impro Chums, Swan Lake, Strangers
on a Train Set, La Bohème, Murder She
Didn’t Write, Dear Zoo and London
Bridge Trio. Improv, dance, theatre,
opera, comedy, family performance
and music, all in one week.
We also now programme “Hat Fair
inspired” work into the theatre to
connect our two platforms and build
new audiences for contemporary
dance, circus and visual performance
by using Outdoor Arts as an
Hat Fair is our jewel in the crown and
our wide-open door. ThroughHatFair
we already co-commission new work
and we are now supporting new
indoor work too. In 2019/20, we
are co-commissioning Motionhouse,
Southpaw Dance Company and
David Glass Ensemble, to create and
tour new performance, for example.
This is an important responsibility for
any presenting organisation. It is not
enough just to receive work. You have
to invest into the creation ecology too.
Can we look forward with confidence
after two years of change? Well,
given what we are seeing in society
and politics at the moment, who
knows, frankly. Two things are certain,
though: two years flies by and it takes
longer than you think to instigate and
embed positive change, and change
is the only constant; our sector must
continue to reinvent itself to remain
relevant and vital. I do believe arts
and culture will play an increasingly
powerful and compelling role in place
making and in education and training.
I also believe that these two things will
become critical to the future health
and wellbeing of local economies and
communities in the years ahead.
No amount of
sweaty assets
are worth it
though, if you
are not
presenting or
enabling great
art to, for and
with more
Hat Fair performance
outside Winchester
Guildhall; photo by
Adrienne Photography

This article was sponsored by Play to the Crowd. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from Rt Hon Michael Gove.

Rt Hon Michael Gove's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By Rt Hon Michael Gove

This year's Parliamentary Review comes at a momentous time for parliament, as we collectively determine the destiny of the United Kingdom. 

On October 31, the UK will leave the European Union. The successful implementation of this process is this government's number-one priority.

Three years after a historic referendum vote, we will deliver on the decisive mandate from the British people. Trust in our democracy depends on it. Until that final hour, we will work determinedly and diligently to negotiate a deal, one that abolishes the backstop and upholds the warm and close relationship we share with our friends, allies and neighbours in the EU. But in the event that the EU refuses to meet us at the table, we must be prepared to leave without a deal.

As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it is my job to lead on this government's approach, should that scenario happen. Preparing for Brexit is my department's driving mission. But while I am leading this turbocharged effort, the whole of government is committed to this endeavour.

Ministers across Whitehall are working together to ensure that every possibility is considered, every plan is scrutinised and every provision is made. A daily drumbeat of meetings means that we are holding departments accountable, so that preparations are completed on time.

The chancellor has confirmed that all necessary funding will be made available. And we have mobilised thecivil service, assigning 15,000 of our most talented civil servants to manage our exit from the EU.

We will make sure that on November 1, there is as little disruption to national life as possible. Our trade relationships will continue to thrive, thanks to agreements with countries around the world worth £70 billion. Our country will remain secure, thanks to nearly 1,000 new officers posted at our borders. And the 3.2 million EU nationals now living and working among us can remain confident, with absolute certainty, of their right to remain in the UK.

Above all, our goal is to be transparent. Soon, we will launch a public information campaign so that citizens, communities and businesses are ready and reassured about what will happen in the event of “no deal”.

In my first few weeks in this role, I have travelled to ports and tarmacs, borders and bridges, all across the UK –from the seaside of Dover to the rolling green hills of County Armagh. I have heard from business owners and border officials, farmers and hauliers. They are ready to put an end to uncertainty. And they are ready to embrace the opportunities ahead.

Our departure from the EU will be a once in a lifetime chance to chart a new course for the United Kingdom. Preparing for that new course will be a herculean effort. But this country has made astounding efforts before. We can do it again.
Rt Hon Michael Gove
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster