Blog: Reflections on 2023 and a look forward to 2024

As 2023 draws to a close, Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan looks back over the key issues and achievements of the year and forward to priorities in 2024.

The pandemic continues to cast a long shadow over the theatre sector with lower audience levels, cost-of-living pressures and funding challenges impacting theatres’ budgets. Along with making the case for supporting theatres to national and local governments, Theatres Trust had a busy year providing direct assistance to theatres impacted by these issues.

It was against this backdrop that we devised our new three-year business plan and took the opportunity to refresh our mission and vision. Operating under the tagline “Theatres Fit for the Future”, our renewed focus recognises that the best way to protect theatres is for them to be well designed and well run – to prevent them becoming ‘at risk’ in the first place. We will focus on four key principles: resilience, inclusivity, environmental sustainability and placemaking. We created a short video with the help of some of our Ambassadors to articulate our plans. This was shown for the first time at the International Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference in September, where we were pleased to co-host the reception.

Watch our video Theatres Fit for the Future

Work is well underway on several of the projects mentioned in the video. Our Resilient Theatres: Resilient Communities programme, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, the Pilgrim Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust, had a successful first year, supporting Theatres at Risk through grants and cohort training and the wider sector through a programme of webinars, which attracted more than 350 participants. We’ll be announcing details of webinar programme for the second year in due course.

Group of people on a training course

Theatres Trust formally took on the role of Secretariat for the Theatre Green Book UK, as part of the project’s new steering group structure. There are exciting plans for developing this project and supporting theatres on their journey to be more sustainable, including publishing a new version of the book in 2024 and a range of prototype support tools.

We recruited a Theatres Database Project Manager to drive forward the project to build the UK’s first comprehensive database of theatre buildings. The database will support information and knowledge sharing across theatres and the wider sector and form a full picture of the country’s theatres, enabling us to monitor trends and issues across the sector and giving us invaluable information to help advocate on behalf of theatres.

Alongside these new projects, we continued with our core work supporting theatres with advice and through the planning system. We were a strong voice for theatres in the planning system, commenting on local and national policies and plans as well as responding to 134 planning applications, 104 applications for listed building consent and 24 pre-application proposals in 2023.

With our colleagues at ABTT, we provided guidance to theatres about Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete. Thankfully it has only been identified in a small number of theatre buildings, but it was another unexpected issue for the sector to deal with at an already difficult time.

In 2023 we saw unprecedented demand for our grants with the ratio of applications to funds available being far greater than in previous years. This indicates not only that funding for theatres is scarce, but also that there is a real appetite amongst theatres to carry out work to their buildings that will improve their resilience, widen inclusion and increase their environmental sustainability. This year we awarded grants totalling £342,000 to 47 theatres through our Theatre Improvement Scheme with the Wolfson Foundation, our Small Grants Programme supported by The Linbury Trust and our Resilient Theatres: Resilient Communities Grant Programme. We are hugely grateful to our funders for their ongoing support that enables us to offer these much-needed grants.

Funders and staff of Rich Mix outside the venue.The 2023 Theatres at Risk Register saw three theatres removed from the list for positive reasons as their futures were secured. We’ve continued to support the theatres that remain on the list throughout the year, both through the Resilient Theatres: Resilient Communities programme and through ongoing advice. We’ll be announcing the 2024 list at the end of January with an online launch event – register for your free place to find out about changes to the list, trends and progress.

Group of people in hard hats and yellow safety jackets in a historic theatre auditorium with pink plaster ceiling that is being renovated.

Throughout the year, Theatres Trust’s small staff team was supported by our Board of Trustees. We were delighted to be a host board for the first year of the Boardroom Apprentice scheme and to benefit from the expertise and perspective of Manpreet Gill at our Board and Committee meetings this year. We are taking part again in 2024 and look forward to welcoming a new Boardroom Apprentice into our organisation. We were sad to see a number of our existing board members finish their time on our Board this year. We’d like to thank Paul Cartwright, Richard Johnston, Gary Kemp and Jane Spiers for their contributions to our work.

There is a lot planned for 2024 with the projects mentioned above gathering pace and we expect there to be ever more demand for our services, particularly as theatre feel the impact of cuts to local authority budgets. But we look forward to working with colleagues across the sector and tackling whatever comes our way.