SEASIDE The south coast’s soul of circus
Worthing had been dismissed as ‘God’s waiting room’, but this summer young people are flocking to its theatres for an artform the seaside resort is making its own, as well as a year round diverse programme
Worthing, in the perception of many a sleepy retirement resort bereft now of its Edwardian architectural glory, is on a sharp upward rise.
The figures over just four years are startling: profits are up 88%; ticket revenue up 23%; 40% booked four times or more in 2016/17 compared with a national average of 24%; 39% of the 2016-17 audience were first timers.
But for centuries Worthing has been a place looking for its soul. In the mid-18th century it was a mackerel fishing hamlet, and then was discovered by the wealthy led by royal princesses and became fashionable. Oscar Wilde chose to go there for family holidays and in 1894 wrote The Importance of Being Earnest there. It was less raucous than Brighton ten miles along the coast, and unlike Chichester 18 miles away it had the sea and a pier.
For local people, it developed a market gardening economy, creating jobs and a financial centre, and now it has a growing population of over 100,000 making it one of England’s largest towns. But its 19th century grandeur has largely gone. Many of the grand buildings, like its 1830s town hall, its medieval mansion and many of its Victorian villas, and its Theatre Royal, were demolished through the 20th century and redeveloped in the 70s, giving the town a rueful, red brick anonymity. It still has its 1914 cinema, Picturedome, now the 500-seat Connaught Theatre, and the Ritz dance hall which has become the Connaught Studio; the 1940s Assembly Rooms, home to the Worthing Symphony Orchestra; and the Pavilion Theatre, the 850-seat domed venue, built half on the shore, half on the pier.
But Worthing has become comfortable, with all the amenities to make retired folk feel content, so that until recently it was one of those sea- side towns whose demographic put it into the cynics’ category of “God’s Waiting Room”. The summer show at the Pavilion Theatre had the same audience every year, a total of 76, and when one year it became 75 the theatre’s management knew the identity of the person who had died.
Now, under the guidance of its head of culture, Amanda O’Reilly, it believes it has found its soul: circus, and this summer audiences are flocking to the Pavilion Theatre to engage with it.
“We’ve discovered an audience we didn’t know was there, and Worthing is going to be the centre for circus in the south” O’Reilly says. “It’s a perfect fit.”
Born in Buckinghamshire Amanda O’Reilly, like so many innovators, came to arts administration by accident. After completing her theatre degree she started a career in contemporary dance, but a hip injury ruled that path out and she joined the West Yorkshire Playhouse as a customer services officer. Success there led to her appointment as general manager at the Queen’s Park Arts Centre back home in Aylesbury, arriving with the venue under threat of closure and leaving it with funding restored and a prosperous box office.
In 2003 she found herself at what was to become Havant’s Spring Arts Heritage Centre, taking over the threatened museum next door and relaunching the combined venue in 2009.
When she arrived at Worthing as general manager of the theatres in 2012 she found a moribund programme that centred on the winter pantomime and had the theatres dark for large parts of the summer, an unbelievable situation for a seaside town. “The offer was poor and the traditional ‘end of the pier show’ just didn’t happen anymore” she says. “We had dead- beat comics because better performers just didn’t want to come to Worthing”, and, worse, she had to deal with a 25% cut in her council budget. “I had to drive the programme onto the rocks – budget for a deficit - to improve the audience offer and bring the box office back up, it was the only way”.
She went to London first night parties and bearded producers and agents to find out why they were not interested in Worthing, and what could change their minds. She became aware that the retired residents were being joined by young families, priced out of the Brighton housing market, and brought in children’s theatre. She began to make partnerships to bring touring productions to her venues, and began to haunt festivals looking for ideas.
The top comics are back now – “They just want to be looked after properly, and they are - they’ll re- member the cake but also the way the lighting and sound engineers do just what they want” – and this summer Barry Cryer, Sarah Pascoe, Andy Hamilton, Jo Brand, Russell Brand and Susan Calman are in the line-up. There are family shows, like Horrible Histories and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt bringing the winter panto audience back in summer. There’s straight theatre with the Connaught a touring venue for the latest Peter James thriller dramatisation. There’s music, classical of course but also folk, jazz and soul, across the venues, as well as lm and dance. And Worthing has caught on to the enthusiasm for celebrity talks with Germaine Greer, Lucy Worsley and Michael Parkinson in the programme.
After a little more than two years O’Reilly was promoted to become Worthing’s head of culture.
The town council, despite hard times, has been supportive. “The highest cost is our salary bill which the council has supported with a 1% inflation increase and staff increments each year” O’Reilly says. “The council has given fantastic support and kept the savings target to a minimum in these times when government funding to local councils is being cut.
“Our greatest achievement? Having an operational budget reduction of £217,000 over the last five years whilst dramatically improving the cultural offer. These savings were achieved mostly in the last two years and certainly to develop a new audience for a new body of work; the financial position was challenging before we turned it around, so we had to hold our nerve. ‘Screw your cour- age to the sticking place’ became our motto.”
That offer has been diversified and enhanced, as the more detailed income figures show: comedy, up 151%; dance, up 86%; family theatre, 174%; talks, 152%; panto, 74%; screen, 61%. O’Reilly has taken on a contents officer so that social media has become an important tool.
But the diversification has only begun. It was at the Edinburgh Festival that she saw the potential of circus. “This wasn’t circus as we knew it, it had narrative which you expect from theatre but not from circus, beauty, breath-taking physicality, and it had me sobbing with emotion” she says. She got advice from contemporary circus venues like the Roundhouse and Jackson’s Lane in London and Circomedia in Bristol, and in the spring of 2016 began planning a Summer of Circus; Worthing is in the midst of the second, more than doubling the audience of the first. She joined the Arts Council’s Coasters project, 11 seaside venues funded to develop street arts and circus to help build relationships with audiences and update the perception of the English seaside.
But circus is at the heart of Worthing’s summer revival, breaths being taken by Ockham’s Razor and its new show Tipping Point; eyebrows stretched with Barely Methodical Theatre’s Kin and Metta Theatre; minds boggling at Max Calaf Seve and Cirque du Platzak.
O’Reilly and Worthing have gone beyond simply offering space for circus, however. They are providing research and development space and equipment for circus practitioners to perfect new work, and workshops for the public to test themselves. They have even ventured into commissioning, joining with Bristol’s Circomedia to help Vertical Dance create a new open air piece.
Next year, for Circus 250 (marking the anniversary of the opening of Philip Astley’s Hippodrome in London, the first formal circus), Worthing will make 2018’s Summer of Circus the launchpad for its future as southern England’s centre for circus. O’Reilly, now also in charge of the town’s museum and art gallery for which she has a refurbishment plan and where the costume collection is particularly ne, is filling the Pavilion’s foyer with an exhibition about the history of circus created by curators.
“We’re blessed with our theatres – the Pavilion could have been made for circus – but also our open spaces, which we mean to make full use of and discover ways of presenting circus free of charge if we can get the funding” O’Reilly says. “Make no mistake, circus is the new exciting artform, and Worthing is the place to see it.
“I may have been naïve, but with- out that naivety we might not have tried things that we didn’t know would work, and we wouldn’t have arrived at where we are” she adds. “And Worthing is in a really good place.”