Hastings’ White Rock Theatre - gradual change of emphasis under new operators

A new chapter opens this week for Hastings’ White Rock Theatre as The Guildhall Trust in Portsmouth takes over its running, adding it to its creative portfolio.
CEO of The Guildhall Trust Andy Grays (contributed pic)CEO of The Guildhall Trust Andy Grays (contributed pic)
CEO of The Guildhall Trust Andy Grays (contributed pic)

CEO of The Guildhall Trust Andy Grays said: “It's a great venue for us to work with, and it will be about changing the emphasis within the next few years, moving from a mixed-use theatre to more of a music and concert-hall style, with one-nighters and just using our relationships with the real top-notch promoters that we have built up over the years.”

Andy stressed that changes would not be immediate: “It takes a number of years to make a difference and the pace of change is important so we're certainly not talking about changes straightaway.”

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Crucially, the trust remains committed to the annual panto. Plus Andy stressed there would be local autonomy: “Most of Hastings will be run from Hastings. In fact, a lot of people on site will be empowered to do more than they have been able to do. It is just that we will set the overall framework. We are a concert hall, music-hall operator and the White Rock will become more aligned to concerts and music rather than mid-scale theatre. It will be much more along those lines but to an extent that has been happening already. But we want to raise the bar. We want to put in a proper classical music series, and we are planning to work with our existing partners. It has to be a step at a time. There's a real sense of how you take an audience on a journey to explore more, and for the people of Hastings there is already a very natural relationship with the venue.”

The venue remains owned by Hastings Borough Council. The Guildhall Trust are taking over the lease from the outgoing operators Trafalgar Theatres: “The previous occupiers had an extension to their lease which was as far as they were allowed to take it. They had a three-year extension in the middle of the pandemic and then the building went out to tender last year. Our lease is now 25 years with an option to extend. We have an option for a further ten years.”

It all comes at a time when the Guildhall Trust is able and keen to expand: “Over the last ten years we have been wrapped up in making the Guildhall a vibrant and viable place and it is very much now a mixed business and a charitable trust. What we have done with the Guildhall is to work out the balance between concert hall and other commercial aspirations and how that then backs into our charitable aspirations. We have found a really good understanding of how to balance the one against the other – and all against a historical background of funding cuts. The problem has always been how we do what we do with significant cuts. But we have achieved a balance through making the building more resilient and also through trying to promote our own events and structuring them in such a way that they can help underwrite us. It is not just about having people come and do things to the building. It's about doing things yourself. We have done that and so we were able to think about our strategic goals around the rest of the country.”

The trust tried to secure the tender for Fareham but didn't get it: “But it made us think about what our USP is and why we wanted to do it. There is risk in doing anything but equally there is a risk in not doing anything. If you don't grow as a business, then your fixed costs will overtake you. There's a huge amount of cost that has increased for all businesses so we need to do something.

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“Hastings has a nice location with 100,000 people. We recognise the history of the venue even if in many ways it's the complete opposite to the Guildhall. The Guildhall is twice the size it needs to be to be the concert hall that it is whereas White Rock is a really nice tight venue and for an operator it is mightily attractive.” The main auditorium is a 1,000 seater or 1,800 standing. Plus there is a very appealing second hall at the theatre, the Sussex Hall which will be key to Andy and his plans. The aim is to take an “arts centric” approach: “This will be where you get the theatre and the early-years events.”

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