Officers had recommended that ‘Council continue to support Ulster University’s Riverside Theatre to the sum of £107,500 p.a. through a service-based contract for a period, not exceeding two years’, writes Gillian Anderson, Local Democracy Reporter.
The Riverside Theatre, which can seat up to 360, is owned and managed by the Ulster University. In contrast, the council’s facilities are designed as multi-functional spaces and do not have the same capacity.
In a report brought before the Leisure and Development Committee, members were informed that the proposed continuation of council support of £107,500 represents an estimated 34.6 per cent of the overall projected budget for Riverside Theatre for 2021-22.
62 per cent of the council’s support is directly attributed to artistic programme delivery, with 22 per cent towards technical and management costs, and 16 per cent towards marketing, promotion and necessary licensing costs.
The report also explained that officers have been working in conjunction on collaborative projects with the university to ensure activities the council may agree to fund will be closely aligned to Causeway Coast and Glens Council’s cultural strategy by supporting young people to improve existing, or to gain new skills; offering new creative experiences in order to increase learning opportunities and recognise the value of the arts in terms of wellbeing; increase accessibility and usage of council-supported cultural facilities or services and a greater levels of appreciation of arts and heritage by the public.
Proposing council support the recommendation to support the theatre, UUP Alderman Joan Baird spoke about how badly the arts and culture sector had been hit by the pandemic.
“This is very important. This is the main theatre in our borough and it provides great service to us and let’s hope times settle down and are sufficiently normal going forward for the theatre to be able to extend action into the programme.”
PUP Councillor Russell Watton, who in the past has been critical about funding going to the Riverside Theatre, said: “I didn’t think it was reaching out to the people I represent. However, I see the Ulster University Widening Access department, which I have never heard of, is offering bursary places for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I would like to hear more about that and speak to someone about that and see what we can do about it and if there is anything in it for young people from more disadvantaged areas.”
The council officer confirmed that she could put Cllr Watton in touch with someone from the theatre.
Seconding his party colleague’s proposal to accept the recommendation, UUP Alderman Norman Hillis commented: “Councillor Watton was quite right to raise the issue of overall inclusivity, it does have to be open to all ages and all classes, it should be a theatre for everyone. We can’t forget about the arts, I do think we should support the theatre in this way.”
Stating his party’s concern, DUP Councillor Aaron Callan said: “We believe as a council we should not be giving money to a body to basically maintain a building that’s not under our control, they control the asset.
“I know the university had talked about doing a review on the management of the Riverside Theatre. I was looking at the website to check and see what their engagement was with the community and what programme of events they had on.
“Most of the events they had were either comedy shows and there is a panto but they are all taking place in either the Diamond or the Octagon. It’s been quite a few years since I attended Coleraine University but I’m pretty sure that’s not the Riverside Theatre.
“What is actually happening with the Riverside Theatre and is it being used? The university said they were doing an estates strategy which the Riverside Theatre is included in.
“I was told there were significant costs because the theatre needed a major upgrade and the university was effectively running it down. If you put £107,500 into something in the long term that isn’t really going to be there or viable? I think there needs to be questions asked.”
Council officer Julie Welsh confirmed there is an ongoing estates review by the university adding: “We haven’t received anything formal in relation to the medium or longer term strategy for the Riverside, it is still subject to internal debate.”
The DUP Group Lead brought up the fact that previously advertised shows in the theatre had now been cancelled.
“Is the theatre closed because I’ve been told there were shows that have been cancelled because they were told the theatre was closing.
“One of the groups was to hold a show in January and suddenly the tickets for it were stopped and they can’t get answers from the theatre. You are saying we are giving this money to the theatre because we don’t have that facility but from what I am being told is the Riverside Theatre even functioning?”
Ms Walsh explained: “From my understanding they are in the process of doing some remedial works and health and safety works in the theatre but I will come back to you about that.”
Councillor Callan proposed the decision should be deferred until some of the questions raised were answered.
Sinn Fein Councillor Dermot Nicholl felt that council needed to ‘step up’ and have a ‘constructive meeting’ with theatre management and staff in a bid to get answers and a way forward.
Saying ‘I’m the last guy that wants to throw away money’, Alderman Hillis added: “I look around Northern Ireland and there are theatres in various council areas and I bet my bottom dollar it would cost a lot more than £100,000 if we wanted to go and run a theatre ourselves.
“I wouldn’t want to spend money unnecessarily but we are getting questions here that nobody is here to answer.”
Director of Leisure and Development, Richard Baker suggested holding an informal workshop with members and theatre management before DUP Alderman George Duddy suggested an amendment to Cllr Callan’s proposal, that the decision be deferred until the workshop is held.
Supporting the proposal for a deferral and workshop, Sinn Fein Councillor Cara McShane then referred to the new International Airshow which was discussed at a previous meeting.
“We have been having this discussion for half an hour over £107,000, I’ve been asking for eight weeks about an event that could potentially cost five times that over two days and yet I can’t get any information on that from our own people let alone external organisations.
“I do share frustrations when people can’t get information but when we can’t get it from senior staff within Causeway Coast and Glens it doesn’t bode well for transparency.
“I do support the proposal to have a more detailed discussion within a workshop setting and hopefully we will have a similar thorough debate and discussion over the money we are proposing to spend on next year’s airshow.”
Members voted unanimously to defer the decision subject to the workshop.