‘Ambitious’ theatre charity’s big plans to ensure bright cultural future

PUBLISHED: 12:00 05 September 2018

Fiona Matthews

Fiona Matthews

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In 2007, a short-term project to promote performing arts in North Somerset was devised. Now, more than a decade later Theatre Orchard is about to embark on its latest season of shows and the creative team has big plans for the future.

North Somerset MP Dr Liam Fox with Fiona Matthews and Living Spit's Howard Coggins at the opening of Theatre Shop in 2015.North Somerset MP Dr Liam Fox with Fiona Matthews and Living Spit's Howard Coggins at the opening of Theatre Shop in 2015.

The charity began life working with eight professional arts groups and communities across a six-month period.

The scheme culminated with a performance called Festival of Eight and its success inspired Theatre Orchard to become a more permanent fixture.

Since then the group has grown and since 2015, working in partnership with comedy duo Living Spit, has put on a regular programme of shows at Theatre Shop – a disused retail unit in the heart of Clevedon.

Its success inspired a similar venture in Theatre Tropicana, again making use of a formerly neglected space to breathe new life into an iconic Weston venue.

However, despite Theatre Orchard’s dedication and drive, creative director Fiona Matthews says it is North Somerset’s appetite for live performance which has been the catalyst for the charity’s success.

She said: “The fantastic people of North Somerset – audiences, participants and volunteers alike – have been brilliant ambassadors, enabling and supporting live arts events in all sorts of unusual places and keeping up a rallying cry for more.

The Weekend of Wonders will return to the Italian Gardens this month. Picture: Paul BlakemoreThe Weekend of Wonders will return to the Italian Gardens this month. Picture: Paul Blakemore

“Throughout there has been a real groundswell of support from local communities and a willingness to take risks on a range of experiences, which has given us the impetus to keep at it despite the financial challenges.

“We have been ambitious about ensuring all the work we present is of exceptional quality – it is not just the cities which deserve great work on their doorsteps.

“It sounds cliched, but we have genuinely been motivated by a belief the arts should be part of everyday life for everyone.

“Live arts have so much to offer individuals and communities. They can cast fresh perspectives on places and social issues, create unforgettable shared experiences, build skills, confidence and employment – transformational in many senses of the word.”

In April, Theatre Orchard reached one of its biggest landmarks when it became one of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio organisations – giving it access to funding worth up to £360,000 over the next four years.

Fiona says the achievement is one of the proudest moments of her career, along with working with young people in Weston’s South ward and curating a string of high quality shows at the Tropicana.

Trainspotting was performed at Theatre Tropicana last year. Picture: Andreas GriegerTrainspotting was performed at Theatre Tropicana last year. Picture: Andreas Grieger

She said: “In Weston it has been fantastic to see the long-neglected Tropicana spring back into life.

“Show highlights from our seasons at the Tropicana have been the pulsating Trainspotting, Inua Ellams’ stirring An Evening With An Immigrant which moved many to tears, and Lost Dog’s award-winning dance version of Paradise Lost.

“Not forgetting Sex Workers Opera which was an eye-opener in many senses of the word – a great example of theatre asking some challenging questions about society.”

Theatre Orchard has also put on Le Cirque de Platzak in the Italian Gardens while the Weekend of Wonders will return to the town on September 29.

As well as a whole series of performances at Theatre Shop this autumn, the Tropicana will welcome shows including Instant Wit Murder She Didn’t Write – Degrees Of Error and Living Spit’s festive favourite Nativity.

It is teaming up with Travelling Light for new show Three Kings which will be taken to schools and residential homes across Weston.

Trainspotting was performed at Theatre Tropicana last year. Picture: Andreas GriegerTrainspotting was performed at Theatre Tropicana last year. Picture: Andreas Grieger

Theatre Orchard also hopes to employ apprentices to its soon-to-be core team of six staff who work alongside a dedicated group of volunteers.

Fiona added: “We are in our first year as an Arts Council National Portfolio organisation, and short-term we plan to keep building the foundations to put us in a more robust position which can ensure a bright cultural future for North Somerset.

“In due course, we would like to look at creating more apprenticeship opportunities that can benefit young people.

“As well as continuing to further develop our performance and outreach offer for the region, we are involved in strategic discussions around longer-term cultural opportunities in Weston which could promise exciting developments for the town.”

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