Paul Iles worked with Peter Booth of Positive Solutions of Liverpool, as project leader for an organisational review, development of refurbishment options and a new business plan for Buxton Opera House in 1997. Architect Frank Matcham's 1903-built touring house had been reopened in 1979, after being a mixed use cineme-and-theatre from 1927. Following almost twenty years of year round theatre use, the Grade II* listed theatre was in need of substantial upgrading to meet modern audience expectations. New access requirements and a number of structural problems had been identified. The building was also deficient in relation to Health and Safety legislation. There were also severe problems in other important areas, including a shortage of social space and poor dressing rooms for artists.
In 1996, High Peak Borough Council, owners of the theatre freehold, had applied for funding from both the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of England National Lottery, for money towards a second capital redevelopment of the Opera House.Following appraisal of the Council's application, and some modifications to the original proposals, the Heritage Lottery approved in principle - but subject to conditions - the allocation of £509,100 in April 1997. One of the conditions was that the Arts Council should also be content with the application, and, in particular, be supportive of the detailed operational plans as reflected in the proposed designs and business plan. Coincident with the Arts Council’s consideration of the Lottery application, their Touring Department had commissioned a management audit of the Buxton Opera House.
In the light of this audit, the Arts Council concluded that a reworking of the original application was desirable; they offered supplementary support to the High Peak Borough Council to engage consultants to rewrite the application, taking account of detailed comments on the original application from assessors.
Working with architects, surveyors, accountants, marketing and access specialists, a 'full-bid' Lottery application was developed by Positive Solutions. We also collaboarated with Margaret Millican MBE DL (1924-2009) - who was the person most responsible for reviving the Opera House in 1979 and who chaired the board for 26 years - the then vice chairman Michael Williams, and the theatre manager, the late Judith Christian.
The new application was successful, and the Opera House was renovated between late-1999 and mid-2001. More beautiful - and more comfortable - than ever before, the glamorous Edwardian gem has continued to be one of the most successful touring houses in England. Operated by High Peak Theatre Trust Limited, the managers present over 400 performances and events annually, selling 184,000 tickets in 2008, plus a further 26,000 to performances organised outwith the main theatre. This is achieved with revenue grants of only £49,000 from the local authority, and £44,000 from Arts Council England. Like many professionally managed community theatres, the largest subsidy is from volunteer staff, who are estimated to donate equivalent payroll costs of £150,000 annually. The achievement is all the more astonishing because Buxton's population is only 21,000.
See the Buxton Opera House website. Buxton is one of the foremost festival towns in England, famous for the annual Buxton Festival, the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival and Four-Four Time - the Buxton Opera House Festival of Live Music. Situated 1,000 feet up in the hills, the spa has long been associated with top quality theatre, as when Old Vic Theatre Company impresario Lilian Baylis staged drama festivals at the Opera House in 1937 and 1938. These programmes are from The Laughing Audience collection of theatre ephemera:
To discuss help with grant-writing, please contact Paul Iles.
See also Colin Wells, The Buxton Stage, Disley, Millrace, 1998, and Ros McCoola, Theatre in the Hills: two centuries of theatre in Buxton, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Caron Publishing, 1984.