Theatre in Exeter – today
There is probably little doubt that the region’s “main theatre” is The Exeter Northcott. For over 40 years it has been presenting a programme of mainly professional shows. In previous times they were mainly home produced in the tradition of a regional repertory company but more recently it has relied on visiting productions from around the country and occasionally working with a co-producing partner to present a show that then goes on somewhere else.
In its time it has produced some great theatre, hosted some big names, grown and captivated audiences for different genres of performance and has been and still is well supported. It’s had its ‘ups and downs’, had to change its programming to retain public funding and been threatened with closure but it is still loved and remembered fondly by actors, directors, technicians and audiences alike.
But theatre going has changed over the last 40 years. People want a complete night out. They want to walk to the theatre after work or a shopping trip and meet friends in the bar for a drink and something to eat before the show or go to a local restaurant afterwards. They want to pop in for coffee in the morning and pick up a brochure or see if there are any tickets left for the evening show. They want some lunchtime entertainment – a one act play, some poetry or music.
The Northcott can’t provide this. It is too remote from the City Centre so it has little public ‘footfall’ through the day. It has limited catering and bar facilities and has no internal space for private events or corporate entertaining. And for a rural population that relies on cars to get anywhere, parking can be tricky near the theatre, especially if you visit during the day time when spaces anywhere on the campus are hard to find. There is a half hourly bus service but somehow, waiting for a bus in the rain after a show on a lonely campus takes some of the magic away from going to the theatre.
But crucially, its seating capacity is too small to attract major shows. Touring a large show around the country is an expensive business and if your maximum box office take is limited to less than 500 tickets, as a producer, you will look elsewhere.
Loved and supported though it is, The Exeter Northcott is no longer adequate to serve a regional capital with ambitious expansion plans. Exeter needs a theatre to be proud of. A landmark building in the city centre, a flagship performance venue and a cultural hub for theatre in a region that has little competition between Plymouth and Bristol.
EXISTING CITY CENTRE VENUES
The Barnfield Theatre
Situated in Barnfield Road, just off Southernhay, the building dates from 1890 and was used by the Exeter Literary Society for talks, magic lantern shows, music and dance. In 1972 a raked auditorium was added creating an excellent seating layout for 275. It was refurbished again in the 80’s providing a front of house lighting bridge, new lighting equipment and a technical control room at the rear of the auditorium. The building, now leased to Barnfield Theatre Ltd is listed on the City Council website as ‘Exeter’s own community theatre presenting a varied programme of amateur and professional performances’. But with limited stage facilities and a small seating capacity, it is not attractive to touring professional theatre shows.
The Bike Shed Theatre
Championing new work and innovation, the Bike Shed Theatre has gained national acclaim for its shows. Situated in the basement of a large building at the top of Fore Street, the Bike Shed is a ‘fringe’ type of venue presenting new writing and small touring companies. With a seating capacity of 60 and an excellent bar it is an intimate, friendly space and excels at producing theatre that is innovative, sometimes challenging but always worth going to see.
The Corn Exchange (Formerly St. George’s Hall)Owned and operated by the City Council and with a seating capacity of 500, the Corn Exchange is a large multi-purpose venue with a flat floor and ‘bleacher’ type seating at the rear of the auditorium. It hosts conferences, as well as professional comedy and ‘one-nighters’ and currently presents Exeter’s professional Christmas pantomime. It has the largest seating capacity of any theatre space in Exeter but the stage space and technical facilities are not adequate for middle or large scale touring theatre shows.
Described on the City Council website as ‘the leading contemporary arts and media venue in Exeter’, the Phoenix fulfils many functions of the second ‘Aim’ in Exeter’s new City Centre strategy. Its auditorium has a seating capacity of 200 - 240 and good technical facilities although limited height for flying. It currently programmes professional dance, music, small scale theatre, film and exhibitions.
The New Theatre (Cygnet Theatre)
A flexible space seating approximately 100, the building houses Cygnet Training Theatre who use it for their own productions as well as some visiting professional theatre and dance. It has a wide stage and auditorium with a low ceiling throughout and limited front of house facilities. Being a little way out of the City Centre, is not very well known as a public theatre venue.