An Open Letter To Stafford Borough Council and Freedom Leisure regarding the future of Open Air Shakespeare at Stafford Castle

To Freedom Leisure and Stafford Borough Council,

My fear with this decision to move Stafford Shakespeare to Stafford Gatehouse is that Freedom Leisure, approved by Cabinet is losing touch with the long term artistic ambition of the Gatehouse and is growing further away with its local community.

It is clear both parties want Shakespeare in Stafford to turn a profit. While this isn’t necessary a bad target, the most successful arts organisations in the country are only successful by knowing that some productions are commercially successful and that others are successful in other areas. Audience outreach, publicity, and reaching challenging audiences are just a few examples of where the box office will suffer, but the benefits elsewhere will pay back.

Whenever a programme of events are scheduled, they need to be looked at as a whole in terms of profitablility and uniquely in terms of what they bring to the artistic vision of the organisation.  The best artistic organisations across the UK dont work on the basis that every show must turn a profit.

Let’s cast our mind back to post covid. If producers only did safe productions guaranteed to make a profit, there would have been no productions just past covid because they were very unlikely to make a profit. Productions also wouldn’t have been staged during social distancing. Instead, they were because of the importance of serving local communities.

If you’re always going after box office success, you’re failing your duty to your local area, the community you’re going to serve. The arts are unique in this way and why running the Gatehouse and Shakespeare should not be run as a leisure centre. Neither should it be run as a venue whose only attraction is expensive star names.

For too long,  the success of the Gatehouse and Shakespeare has been hampered by being part of one universal contract. Freedom Leisure should not be pinning the Gatehouse vs Shakespeare Vs Leisure Centres. Shakespeare should be produced by the Gatehouse, and its success should be what it achieves for the theatre and its community. It shouldn’t necessarily have to make a profit.

While everything should be done to help it break even, if it doesn’t, the benefit to the local community and the Gatehouses’ reputation will outweigh the financial losses and should be absorbed by profit the Gatehouse makes on other productions throughout the year. This should be the same strategy that is used for productions like the youth theatre. If the Gatehouse doesn’t make enough profit to offset these things at the moment, that needs to be looked at to ensure higher box office returns throughout the year to offset these costs. One way to help this is creating a clear KPI of how many ‘dark days’ the theatre should have and by looking at whether constant one night shows are as valuable to the Gatehouse as other shows that stay there for the week. The Lichfield Garrick, for example, has managed to attract the Mousetrap and The Woman In Black. Why hasn’t the Gatehouse? For too many nights, the theatre lays abandoned and dark or with productions of controversial and sometimes divisise figures. This should be the focus to make the Gatehouse sustainable, not downgrading the artistic vision of the Gatehouse on its one and only time of the year to showcase its artistic ambition. That only hampers it from taking risks, which in itself jeopardises its potential to succeed. The Gatehouse also needs to make these decisions with an overall artistic vision in mind.

Shakespeare at the Castle i’m sure you’ll agree is more than a production. It’s an event. Not just that, it’s  an event that has managed to break down walls that no indoor production could do. Walls that no star can break down. Last year it was a success, more tickets sold than years and it did that without star appeal. It did that by keeping to its roots. By focusing on its USP.

It’s that event that brings audiences to the theatre that never would have usually. It brings tourist to the area that never would have. It enhances the reputation of the Gatehouse. It enhances the reputation of Stafford. All while getting people to touch base with the Gatehouse and Shakespeare, who would not usually do so.

As soon as you encase that in bricks and morter, even with lower ticket prices, you’re putting some huge gold plated gates in front of an audience. Its this barrier that theatres up and down the country, year after year have tried to break down and still to this day find difficult. Therefore, all that work done to widen the reach of the Gatehouse and Shakespeare will be gone. 30 years of wasted investment.

Let’s look at how we can minimalise losses while increasing accessibility. Why not get the caddies sponsored by the local golf club? Why not have on the day pay what you can tickets to increase last minute bookers and to get every seat sold, while improving access. Ultimately, 10 seats sold at £10 is much better than having 10 empty seats and then those 10 seats may go and tell 10 of their friends to further increase audiences. Let’s invest time and resource into getting more corporate sponsorship, submitting bids to local trusts to secure money. These are just a few ideas and I’m sure there are many many more.

Let’s analyse what efficiencies can be made, but let’s work with professionals in the field to make that judgement. The Gatehouse craft some of the best Shakespeare productions ive seen. In a lot of cases in my view beat some RSC productios I’ve seen, but lets build connections to wider artistic world to help drive change for the better, to make the production more sustainable while keeping it true to its roots.

If these changes go ahead in 2023, what is the USP of Shakespeare in Stafford? There isn’t one.  I would argue that in regards to the star name thats coming, that it’s in the taxpayer and audiences’ interest for that money to be better spent developing local talent and craftsmanship rather than squandering the budget on a big star name thats not proven to attract sales.

Let’s look at Pantomine, stars like Marti Pellow in Birmingham, Keala Settle in Northampton may slightly lift sales but they dont create longstanding audiences. Its also questionable whether their uplift in sales covers their incredibly high fee. Instead, let’s have a partnership with Staffordshire University and enable their students to have their professional debut in Stafford, let’s give other local talent their time to shine.

What research has gone into just how much of a negative impact the move from the Castle will have on sales? What research has gone into whether people will really travel in the midsts of summer on a swelting train to a 500 seater venue in Stafford? Whether people will want to sit indoors in the middle of a heatwave? No data or information has been shared and I would suggest no previous audiences have been contacted. This decisions has been made with profit as the only driving decision. Not artistic excellence, not the future of the festival.

It all suggests this is a rash decision which rather than saves its future, stunts any future it could have had while also damaging both the council and Freedom Leisures connection with the people they are supposed to serve. Much worse, jeopardising the Gatehouse as appearing out of touch with the community it first and foremost has the duty to serve.

Was there any time spent talking to specialists of open air theatre to understand and work out what could be done to minimise costs? Were the owners of Shakespeare in the Park in Lichfield contacted? Was the Open Air theatre in Regents Park contacted? Was the Storyhouse in Chester consulted? I could go on, they all make high-quality productions as a reasonable ticket price. Meanwhile, Stafford has gone for the easy answer of let’s just move it indoors. The public reaction has already spoken volumes about it, yet both the council and Freedom Leisure, rather than engaging and listening, are just saying people are wrong. That’s not the way to grow a reputation. That’s a way of tarnishing it.

I attach to this letter an appendix, featuring the two of the three possibilities put before cabinet and their pros and cons. Each one added to with notes added to explain why comments were either exaggerated or unsupported. A lot of positives and negatives for the options were also missed. It’s a concern how little detail was submitted to the cabinet to ensure they made a fair decision.

I would conclude with this final ponder. If you owned or operated the Minack in Corwall, would you make the decision to abandon years or heritage and culture go move to an indoor venue becuase it’s cheaper and more efficient? That it prevents people from sitting in a open air venue in all weathers? That venue operates 12 months of the year and I’m pretty sure if it can do that on a rocky cliff face on the edge of the South West in a sustainable and accessible way, that there is a way Stafford can put on a two week run of Shakespeare in the middle of summer on top of a hill infront of Stafford Castle successfully.

I look forward to hearing you come back to address the concerns raised in this letter. I’m a  huge advocate for the arts in Stafford and for making theatre for everyone. However, I can’t let this just fly by. It’s a direct conflict to what I feel should and must be achieved in Stafford. This situation will damage the Gatehouse’s connection with its audience. It will harm its ability to serve its local community. It will harm the local arts industry and will harm the audience mix of the Gatehouse.

I hope you reconsider this move or atlesst work with me to negate some of the damages this move will have.

Best wishes,

Matthew

Annex:

Option 1

Advantages:

Being in such a unique setting and there being not a huge amount of competition, it enhances the ability to be able to attract people from outside the Gatehouse’s normal audience reach.

Reaches an audience the Gatehouse usually doesn’t reach

Using Gatehouse staff efficiently during what is usually a theatre’s quiet time.

Being able to attract talent due to the history of the festival and the uniqueness of the setting.

Attract a wider press coverage due to the unique event

Encourages tourism due to the uniqueness of the event.

Allows word of mouth to continue ‘have you see they’re doing x at Stafford Castle this year’, ‘oh yes that should be good, I saw x at it last year’

Being able to utilise the set up for other events to maximise profit e.g concerts.

Disadvantage:

Point 1 shouldn’t be required. Freedom Leisure has failed in its contract if its can’t self subsidise the production through other ticket revenue at the Gatehouse, through corporate sponsorship, grants / donations funding etc then Freedom Leisure is not giving the Gatehouse the right level of resource to succeed.

Point 2 can be negated by giving audiences comfort that they can stay dry with an undercover area pre show and also can negate last minute booking by encouraging advance sales. It could even create a last minute rainy day discount to entice more crowds

Point 3: as not all tickets are sold, its not sensible to consider higher ticket options and as highlighted in the opposition to Point 1, the production should not necessarily turn a profit due to its advantages in other areas.

Point 4: can be negated by working with other parties who similarly work in unique situations.

Point 5: Staff who work at the Gatehouse should be working on the production whether it’s in house or not. They will have an equal amount of time away from their desks regardless of if the event is in the Castle or at the Gatehouse.

Point 6: Over the last 30 years the production has had to be cancelled very few times. 

Option 2

Advantages:

Point 1 shouldn’t be in question, it’s down to Freedom Leisure to ensure the Gatehouse is a viable venue

Point 2: Not exactly true, if it was wet, even if the production was indoors people can get deterred from going out. As explained in option 1, it’s questionable the impact this has either way. Similarly when it’s hot, people are not going to want to be sitting indoors which is why theatres notoriously find the summer months a challenge.

Point 3 : if the lead time is not as long, questions need to be asked about how small this production is going to be. Whether it’s at the Castle or at the Gatehouse the lead time should be equal.

Point 4: Without being an event, people won’t attend. Despite this, the Gatehouse already had gained this reputation because they produced the production.

Point 5: this is questionable, I would suggest audiences won’t travel to see this indoors production and instead go to nearby Stratford regardless of what talent stars in the production.

Point 6: The castle should be as accessible as the Gatehouse and if it isn’t questions need to be asked about why not. Festivals and unique events happen across the country with accessibility as its main focus.

Point 7: the production takes place in the middle of summer. If there were any extreme weather that was that bad, people wouldn’t come whether the production is indoors or outdoors.

Point 8: its a failure of Freedom Leisure if they haven’t generated secondary income at the Castle. Even if they can’t provide it they should be earning money from that being outsourced to another local company. In addition, freedom leisure should already be supporting the Gatehouse to conduct school workshops etc and questions need to be asked about why not if they’re not currently doing it.

Point 9: the theatre being a 500 max capacity venue it should be worked out as a target audience of 85% meaning 425. It’s questionable whether that’s enough demand to trigger secondary night time events pre or post show particular as its no longer an event.

Disadvantages

Losing the Gatehouse’s reputation of being a producing theatre, as there is a high risk chance audiences will drop off significantly, particularly local audiences.

The Gatehouse inadvertently loses base with audiences it never reached before

The Gatehouse loses base with its local audience.

People no longer travel to see the production

Local spend decreases as people no longer buy picnics, stay the night, use local taxis etc

Budget cuts on the set etc will impact local businesses who supply the Gatehouse

The Gatehouse only makes decisions based on commercial success and not artistic development of the venue, jeopardising its future success.

The Gatehouse loses its standing in the creative sector as the operator of one of the largest outdoor Open Air Shakespeare festivals in Europe.

Talent costs more as the appeal of the unique event goes away and the 500 seat capacity being small. You couldn’t attract the likes of David Tennent for example to a 500 seater venue, they’re representatives wouldn’t allow it.

As people no longer treat it as an event they come to see the show and leave and so don’t visit the town centre or spend money there.

The trail fails and audiences never recover

Shakespeare in Stafford closes for good due to low ticket sales.

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