The Rialto, Brighton: Born Out of Desire

Richard Beck met up with Roger Kay, who with his business partner Lauren Varnfield, owns the Rialto Theatre, Brighton, where they are also joint artistic directors. Roger sheds light on the theatre’s past, its place in the community and its contribution to theatre as they confront the current crisis brought about by the COVID-19 shutdown.

Roger, let’s start with some background about how you came to own the Rialto.

I went to watch a production of A Streetcar Named Desire at a local theatre in Brighton and my expectations were really low. I’d been disappointed in the past, but occasionally there is a rough diamond and what I saw that night were two wonderful actors and the work of a director who clearly knew his craft.

I’d been interested in theatre for many years and had even undertaken a very minor role at the Brighton Fringe in the 90’s, but had never taken a step further. However, I was working in my day job with one of the actors from Streetcar, Lauren Varnfield, whose performance had been nothing short of breath-taking. My mind started to churn: why is she not playing to a wider audience?

So, we had a drink and when I asked her why she hadn’t started her own production company, she laughed! Her situation, she explained, was similar to most actors – they had the ability to perform and stage a production, but didn’t have the resources or wherewithal for the rest of the process (which could loosely be described as the role of the producer). We deconstructed the essentials of the missing role and I reckoned I could have a stab at those components. So, we took the plunge to start our own company and at that moment in 2012 Pretty Villain Productions was born. The following year, we performed The House of Bernarda Alba, followed by two further shows and in 2014 pushed the boundaries by staging a two-week run of The Crucible at the Brighton Fringe. It was highly successful and we even won an award. We decided that the only thing holding us back was the absence of our own space, so we started to look around in earnest for a home of our own. After some near misses, we found a discontinued nightclub, which we felt fitted the bill, and in 2014 the Rialto was born - after a lot of time, money and effort. We have now produced 25 shows and taken a homegrown show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

What was your vision for it?

The vision for the theatre was to have a space that we could call our home; to enable the creative spirit with the team to have some kind of conduit and for me personally to investigate or to explore whether there was anything artistic within me that might also find a home. We felt that Brighton needed an accessible space. There were one or two nice theatres, but the accessibility of those was somewhat limited. We felt that there was room for a welcoming theatre where people could come on tour. And fundamentally, we felt that we could develop a space where the quality of the work was high and where we could find some truth in the shows that we produced or hosted. We also wanted people to have a holistically great time, so we didn’t want them to come and see a great show and then go off somewhere else, we wanted them to come and experience a somewhere welcoming and a space that they could call home. That was the vision.

Certainly, after a show there is no need to go anywhere else, as you have created within the Rialto the most wonderful bar area.

Well the wonderful bar was very much Lauren’s creation. Her inspiration for it to be in art-deco style created a very special period atmosphere that reflects one era in the history of the Grade II listed building that dates from 1867. Having an attractive bar was another part of the holistic experience we were aiming for and it was important to have somewhere that could make maximum use of the very generous opening hours we inherited.

Those extraordinary hours exist, I assume, because the premises were previously licenced as a nightclub.

Yes, that's exactly it. There was a licence implicit with the venue and in fact when we applied to the local authority to redesignate the space as a theatre and performing arts venue we were able to keep the 5:00 o'clock license and it has given us a unique selling point.

That’s an unusual and possibly quite rare licence to have. Most clubs these days, even here where we are chatting in central London, let alone a theatre, would not be granted a five o’clock licence.

And that’s true of Brighton.

There is a control zone in the centre of Brighton and you will not get an alcohol licence for any new premises at all. You can only reassign a licence that’s already there. Which is what we were able to do. And of course, there are checks on those to whom they give any licence in terms of being a responsible person. Additionally, we are required to have a theatre licence and the Council prefers that the two to be in different hands, so I am that licensee and one of our co-directors actually holds the alcohol licence.

Well, that’s a fascinating story and insight in itself. Returning now to the business as a whole, until this year, how was it progressing?

Well artistically I think we have developed a reputation for being the home of cutting-edge theatre in Brighton. Other theatres are also good; we wouldn’t say we’d cornered the market, but our reputation is for a theatre that will take risks, that will put on shows that are left-field and I would like to think that our theatre offering at the Brighton Fringe is the best in the city. And the Brighton Fringe is a very big deal; it’s the biggest arts festival in England, it’s the third biggest on the planet. And I believe our reputation is as the best home for theatre at the biggest arts festival in England.

Now artistically its's gone very, very well. We’ve had lots of award-winning shows and the public seem to have taken to us, but financially it's been very tough. Not a day has gone by we’ve not lost money; not a day. However, going into 2020 our projections were to break even and probably to make a small profit. Until Covid happened. Since Covid happened, we’ve paid £43,000 in rent with no income.

Have you received financial help from the government’s Covid relief schemes?

Well in fairness to the government, and I’m not a big fan of the current government, and that probably does not make me a unique person in the artistic world, but they did cancel our rates pretty much when Covid happened, so that saved us £16,000 a year, and we got a £25,000 grant immediately and that really helped to keep us going until the early part of the summer. We paired everything back and we’ve cut every expense we can possibly cut. At the same time there has been increasing political pressure on the government to provide assistance to the artistic world and they’ve announced a £1.5 billion package of support. The detail that eventually came out was of a £500 million package available for entities that we fell into: a limited company that was viable and was of artistic interest and note to the community.

So, based on the criteria we submitted a painstaking application and painstaking it really was. I have a degree in business management and in engineering and I can tell you that the spreadsheets were mind-numbingly complex. Probably we spent about £1500 on external costs preparing our case and applying for support, but we felt that the expense was necessary and the case we put forward, I think, is a very strong one. Today is the 1st October and the support is supposed to be from 1st October to 31st March and we have not heard yet about our application. Now the fact that we haven’t heard yet gives me a little bit of hope that it’s not going to be a resounding ‘No’. It’s being judged by the Arts Council and I would like to think we are an entity with local interest and local importance. And we were a viable business at the point when Covid broke out and the Brighton Fringe programme for this year was going to be our strongest ever.

You mentioned the word ‘community’ and I know that from the outset you wanted the Rialto to become a vital part of community life in Brighton. In what ways have you managed to extend yourself beyond being only a theatre?

We see ourselves as an intrinsic part of Brighton Pride, which is probably the biggest LGBTQ+ Festival in Europe, I think. And throughout the year it's not just theatre; we host music events, cabaret, comedy, magic shows, private parties, weddings, wakes, Bar Mitzvahs and so on. The BBC recently hired our premises to film part of the Mercury Awards and we’ve hosted some very big-hitting bands.

That community dimension has obviously grown with the theatre, so how do you perceive yourselves four years down the line and what are the highlights of your calendar?

First of all, we see ourselves as a multifaceted entertainments venue, so, as I’ve said, it's not just theatre; there are lots of different types of entertainment. We are a welcoming receiving house that doesn't have cliquey entrance criteria, shall we say. We positively encourage new writing. We host and manage the Brighton Scratch Nights, which we believe to be the biggest annual new-writing festival in the Southeast, outside of London. At least eight plays that have come through that event have then been taken forward to the Brighton Fringe, so we are trying to push the boundaries, not just to put on established plays. We post theatre intermittently throughout the year with the jewel in the crown being the Brighton Fringe in May. We had a very successful Edinburgh preview season last July and we were going to replicate that this year.

At what point did you begin to think that events like that would have to be postponed or cancelled?

We were keeping a close eye on the news and the developments in the fight against Covid. I have very long-standing friends in Italy and I could tell from them that they believed England was going to suffer the same disruption due to Covid that they were already suffering. We could see that there would come a point at which we would have to close. I think the decision point was when we hosted an external company who always set up their own shows very successfully. They had sold every ticket for their show: 150 tickets and only 60 people actually attended. After that we decided to close.

Which month was that?

That was mid-March and we have been closed ever since. We have had two or three filming events and that’s it.

The present circumstances are obviously a major setback, but do you think the situation is retrievable?

We absolutely believe that we will survive. We believe that we will emerge, if not stronger, we will emerge. We know our place in the Brighton arts scene and increasingly over the last two years in Edinburgh we’ve found that companies know our name. We've become a hosting entity for international shows and we believe that as long as we can open by the second quarter of next year, we will survive; not unencumbered but we will survive. The big thing for us is Fringe 2021 in May in Brighton. If we can put a stamp on the city and say, “We are back”, then we will be fine; if not, who knows?

Well, we wish you every success in your funding bid and for 2021.

Post-Script

Since I conducted this interview Arts Council England has published the list of beneficiaries of awards from the Culture Recovery Fund: Grants Programme, financed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on behalf of the government. The Rialto was not on that list and now faces an uncertain future in the absence of funding. Its demise would be a major loss to the arts world in general and to Brighton in particular. Roger, Lauren and all those involved with the Rialto are now seeking ways to ensure its survival through local and regional funding as well as private investment.

Photo: Lauren Varnfield, Elsa Couvreur (2019 Award-winning artist in The Sensemaker) and Roger Kay.

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