Housed within a magnificent building and dominating the Glendermott Road, the Waterside Theatre continues to thrive and expand despite a gloomy economic climate. Iain Barr has been General Manager for nine years and is understandably proud of all the theatre has achieved.
“The Waterside Theatre celebrated its 10th Anniversary on February 28, and we have certainly come a long way since we first opened our doors in 2001,” Mr Barr told the ‘Journal’.
“For the first two years we were in business, we received no funding from anyone and poured our own money into running the theatre. As a new enterprise, it took quite a while to break down those barriers and prove ourselves to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland - who are now our principal funders.”
The Waterside Theatre, whose parent company is the International School for Peace Studies, would originally have concentrated on community events, but as interest in the Arts soared, so too did the theatre’s popularity.
“Now we pride ourselves on being one of the major theatres in the North West, offering a wide programme including drama, dance, comedy, ballet, opera and children’s theatre. We have strong links and work very closely with other theatres too, including the Burnavon Theatre in Cookstown, the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh, Riverside Theatre in Coleraine, the Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen. We share various costs too, which helps make it more attractive for shows to play several venues rather than just one.”
One of the key events in the Waterside Theatre’s calendar is the acclaimed City of Derry Drama Festival, which kicks off this Friday, March 4, and will run until Saturday, March 12.
“This will be our 6th year hosting the City of Derry Drama Festival,” Mr Barr said. “It was previously held in the Millennium Forum but that proved too big and we seemed an ideal size for it. In the Festival’s first year at the Waterside Theatre, numbers were comparable to the Forum, and in the second year here, numbers were actually up 50%!
“We work very closely with the committee of the drama festival to develop the event, and we also work closely with many local groups in drama and dance.
“Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company, based in the theatre, is one of the first professional dance companies in Northern Ireland and has been awarded a Legacy grant as part of the Olympic Legacy Project,” Mr Barr went on.
“In Your Space, the street theatre performance company, are another great example of our working partnerships. There are very few working in their particular field, with the exception of the Belfast Circus.”
Other key In-House groups are Jo Jingles, the early years music and movement group, Mouth Piece Productions, the Derry Scriptwriters Group and resident Youth Drama group, Ulidian Drama.
“It’s great to work with groups and provide them with the freedom to develop their work,” Mr Barr said.
“We have worked with some members of our Derry Scriptwriters Group to actually develop their work and help put it on the stage. Then, we try to use our influence to get writers into other venues to perform their work. It’s all about networking and being able to work and develop together.”
In recent years, the Waterside Theatre has undergone extensive expansion to meet growing demands and visitor numbers.
“We had a vision for the front of the building and what was once a dull red brick wall is now a huge glass frontage so people can see what’s going on inside the building,” Mr Barr said. “It’s a vibrant, living theatre and people passing by can see within. We also have a new box office and foyer and the new Bravo Cafe Bar upstairs making the theatre much more attractive and accessible to all. We have opened ourselves up to the community.”
The theatre space at the Waterside venue holds 372 people. “Originally, the theatre had more seats, but we told the architect to take out three rows to give the audience more legroom,” Mr Barr revealed.
“Comfort is essential if you’re going to be sitting down for a couple of hours – the last thing we want is for patrons to feel it’s as cramped as a budget airline!
So, with a superb artistic and educational programme on offer, what does the future hold for the Waterside Theatre?
“The future is all about key developments and key partnerships,” said Mr Barr. “We currently have projects underway in An Grianan and the Alley Theatre in Strabane, and our priorities will always be drama, dance and youth arts.
Mr Barr believes it is vital that they find the right balance between artistic expression and commercial entertainment.
“A lot of the work we do is developmental and so we have to find the balance and still draw in audiences to quality theatre and entertainment. Especially nowadays as funding is being slashed by the Stormont Executive. The Arts are seen as an easy target, but in reality we’ll all be affected badly. That’s why it’s important to find the balance between artistic activities and commercial activities - to retain artistic integrity but balance the books too. We regularly host concerts and visiting musicians, and ballets have proved very popular too.”
Speaking of the future, Mr Barr is cautiously optimistic about the influence of Derry’s City of Culture 2013 title.
“The City of Culture is obviously very important to us all, but now that the euphoria has died down and everyone is busy trying to make it a success, it’s important we see beyond 2013. The key issue for me is the legacy left behind – its easy to get caught up in 2013 but it’s important that we maintain the arts and cultural scene,” he said.
“We have some incredible writers, artists and talent in the North West and having quality venues is the key to supporting their work. It doesn’t end in 2013 - it’s the beginning. And it’s up to us to carry that legacy on.”