Theatre Space

Guest Blog: Susanne Burns – It takes a village to make any space a theatre space

As part of our new blog series, we’re delighted to welcome the first entry from Susanne Burns, an independent arts and culture consultant who’s been helping us navigate the choppy waters we’ve encountered these last few months.

I first came across Theatre Space North East in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic crisis when I offered a coaching session to Corinne Kilvington the company’s founder. I work as an independent consultant and up to March 2020 much of my work was outside of the region. Although I lived here in Sunderland, I was not well integrated into the cultural sector of the city. The pandemic changed all of that as I have embedded more in my community, learned so much more about the cultural ecology and made some amazing new friends amongst a plethora of new working colleagues.

So, when TSNE was awarded a Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF) grant in the Autumn of 2020 I was delighted to be asked to support the company on the journey of reset and recovery. In existence since 2012, TSNE had operated as a CIC since 2016, working from the Collective Space in the City centre. But this structure inhibited fundraising opportunities. It had also become clear that the limited capacity of the company would continue to hold it back unless growth could be attained and carefully managed. The grant bought time, resource and capacity to support Corinne as founder Director to restructure. I was asked to mentor her as she embarked on this journey of change. As the only professional theatre company in Sunderland, TSNE is an invaluable resource to the city and its people. It was clear to me from the onset that, like many small organisations, it was being held back from realising its true potential by limited and stretched resources. The company has achieved incredible outcomes for so long now and it was clear that this had a human cost. 

The CRF grant afforded the opportunity to secure support in administration, marketing and in the studio. It also enabled the process of establishing a Charitable Organisation that would sit alongside the CIC. We brought together an inspiring group of potential Trustees with knowledge of the company, ideas and a passion for the work and the City and we carried out a skills audit and identified a chair. The process meant that Corinne had to start letting go of the reins handing over some strategic decision making to the ‘Trustees in waiting’ whilst renegotiating her own relationship with what was not to became a separate legal entity. This support the CRF grant supported was beyond practical but was also emotional and took some of the burden off the Founder who had to learn to start letting go …. a classic challenge for many founder Directors of small companies. 

During this time the company also cast, rehearsed and toured an outdoor production of Hansel and Gretel in the period leading up to Xmas. This achievement must not be underestimated. To provide Covid Safe outdoor performances across the NE provided employment for four actors, reached an audience of 640 across 9 venues and was unanimously well received. For the first time, a structured approach to evaluation was undertaken by the company and this provided tangible evidence of impact to support the restructuring process.

The progress that has been made in a very short time – but it must be acknowledged at a time that has been incredibly taxing for a cultural sector that was effectively shut down in March 2020 – has been totally inspiring. It proves that theatre is about more than the buildings within which it often takes place. It proves theatre is about more than bricks and mortar but about passion and commitment. 

It has been a privilege to work with TSNE – the company is a force to be reckoned with and one that is crucial to the cultural ecology of the City. It deserves more recognition for its many achievements as well as more support for the invaluable work it does in supporting pathways into the industry, access to high quality work in non traditional theatre spaces for audiences and participatory opportunities at many levels. 

This is our theatre company …… it takes a village to make any space a theatre space …..

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