Posted on Tuesday 23 August 2011 by Ulster Business

[caption id="attachment_1165" align="alignnone" width="510" caption="The new Lyric building"]The new Lyric building[/caption]

Chairman of the Lyric Theatre's board Mark Carruthers tells Symon Ross the business community has a big role to play in helping it sustain a strong early performance.

The new Lyric Theatre opened to much fanfare in May. At a cost of £18.1m and several years in the making, theatregoers were expecting something special, and they have not been disappointed. What was unveiled was a stunning setting for live theatre, which has already played host to sell out performances of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Janet Behan's Brendan at the Chelsea. BBC journalist Mark Carruthers has chaired the Lyric board for the past five years. With longstanding connections in Northern Ireland's acting community and a family heavily involved in the arts, it was a big responsibility to see the old Lyric building knocked down on his watch. But he says the response to the new building, designed by leading architect John Tuomey, has been overwhelmingly positive. "The response we've had to the physical bricks and mortar has been astonishing. I think that comes down to the quality of the design and build. We certainly wanted a building that was going to be iconic," he said. "We make theatre and the building allows us to do that in a way that we were never able to before because there are two beautiful performance spaces and the kit is the best you can get in terms of lighting and sound. It is a real bells and whistles operation." The rest of the building supports those two main stages, with state-of-the-art rehearsal rooms, education facilities, and offices, a quality restaurant and inviting public spaces. The vision is to create something akin to the feel of London's South Bank, which is always busy and vibrant. The Lyric also aims to be affordable to attract people who wouldn't normally go to the theatre, while at the same time adding a focal point for cultural tourism in Belfast. "We want the building to be alive all day, every day. In the past the Lyric opened for half and hour before a show and half an hour after it, and apart from that it was just an office. We want it to be a busy, bustling place, and it is." Of course, running a professional, producing theatre doesn't come cheap. Rather than buying a product off the shelf, the Lyric is doing everything from commissioning the writer and director to building sets, making costumes and putting the acting company together. A show is deemed a success if it covers its costs. "Our outlay on every single show is huge before you've sold a single ticket. If you don't sell the tickets you are looking at a deficit incredibly quickly. So, we need to be both brave and safe in our programming – it is a difficult thing to get right," said Carruthers. "The critical thing in all of this that we have to keep remembering is that yes it is a business, but it is not an ordinary business. It is a cultural business and we make theatre – that is our product. The last thing you want is for the cost of the building to stop you producing good theatre." While the opening productions sold out and bookings are strong for subsequent shows Dockers and The Jungle Book, Carruthers knows the challenge is to maintain that by catering for a range of tastes. Support from Northern Ireland's top directors, designers and actors will help and the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Adrian Dunbar, James Nesbitt and Lyric patron Liam Neeson are keen to work there, or already have. Celebrated Shakespearean actor Simon Callow, who attended the opening, is also busy spreading the word to the acting fraternity in London. There has also been strong backing from people with connections to the theatre such as painters Basil Blackshaw (who used to paint sets), Neil Shawcross (who used to run a workshop there), and Terry Flanagan (who met his wife while painting sets and whose son is the sculptor of a Seamus Heaney bust on display in the lobby). Artist Colin Davidson, who spent a year designing posters at the Lyric, now has portraits of everyone from Brian Friel to Duke Special adorning its walls. "There's a real passion for the place," said Carruthers. "What makes the theatre unique is the connection with the past. It is a new building but we respect the past and are informed by the past."


The theatre's chairman also has no qualms saying it couldn't function properly without support from the business community. Though the Lyric received extensive public funding it relied on the private sector to make up a £5m shortfall in its budget. Northern Bank has come on board as the name sponsor of its main stage, while generous donations have come in from private individuals in the UK, Ireland and US including the Naughton family, which owns Glen Dimplex, and Prudential chairman Harvey McGrath. "I never felt I was going with the begging bowl and asking people to give me something for nothing. We were giving people an opportunity. We were passionate about the project and we told people why we thought it mattered from a business point of view, a social point of view and an economic point of view, but most importantly from an artistic point of view and asked if they wanted to be a part of it," said Carruthers. "Every single organisation or individual who has taken part has done so because they have completely bought into it." With the building now complete the Board is turning its attention from capital funding to ongoing revenue funding, and is working to engage with more companies to help them realise the benefits of being involved with an organisation like the Lyric. "It is hard work in the current climate because even if you get the right person and they are passionate about it, they've got to go in and sell it to their finance person, and that can sometimes be a challenge. Some people don't get it," he noted. Businesses support the Lyric for different reasons – some purely for the social capital and pleasure, others for profile, some as part of their CSR policy and others to provide an outlet for corporate hospitality and rewarding staff. The theatre is aiming to tailor opportunities to specific firms. For example the name of a show called Painkiller, which will be directed by Kenneth Branagh and star Rob Brydon in September, opened the door for the Lyric to approach Clear Pharmacy for financial support for the production. It aims to make sure sponsors get what they want from the relationship, and so far hasn't seen any tensions between the corporate and artistic agendas. "You have to be grown up about it," says Carruthers. "There are some people in the arts world who are inherently conservative and worried about this. The far-sighted people understand this is the world we now live in."


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