HE’S only been in the job officially for a matter of days, but the new chief executive of The Maltings has big plans for the Berwick venue, which has risen from the ashes to become one of the north east’s flagship theatres.
Taking over the reins from Miles Gregory, who was given a terrific send off last month, Matthew Rooke beat off competition from all over the world to land the job and is excited about the challenges that lie ahead after starting his job on January 1.
Rooke lives with his family in Gavinton and has been a frequent visitor to The Maltings over the past couple of years. Although impressed with the massive forward step its programming has taken, he is keen to throw some new ideas into the pot while also building on the theatre’s current success stories.
“I would describe The Maltings as a classic car,” he explained. “It’s been completely stripped away and put back together again in cracking shape. One of its biggest strengths is its close relationship with the public who use the theatre to immerse themselves in film culture or make their first foray into theatre.
“I want the chance to work more on the visual arts side of things. For most young people, their contact with visual art is largely digital and I want to use this and bring art to The Maltings which is eclectic, high quality and accessible.
“I also want to secure the resources to completely transfer to digital cinema. This should allow us to secure big new cinema releases quicker so we can take advantage of all the buzz surrounding the films and people won’t have to think about going to Newcastle, Edinburgh or Galashiels or wait a few months.
“The place’s full name is The Maltings Theatre & Cinema and I want the cinema to be a focal part not just something that’s tagged on at the end.
“Having digital technology will also allow us to broadcast things like Olympic opening ceremonies, big football matches and broadcasts of operas and music tours.
“I want to build up the cinema side of things so that The Maltings becomes potentially better than a multiplex and without the worry of having to fork out lots of money for tickets and snacks. At the moment people will travel elsewhere if they are desperate to see a film, but if we can offer more here it should keep money flowing into the local economy.”
Rooke views The Maltings as “Berwick’s window on the world,” and with that in mind he wants to make sure that every space in the theatre building realises its full potential.
“There are immediate plans to develop the basement and not necessarily for things that the public will see,” he continued.
“The basement studio will be a great rehearsal space as well as a venue for music. This should in turn free up other parts of the building for more performances. The Maltings will be at its best when there is a film going on in one area; theatre in an other and music in the basement.
“The massive increase in Arts Council funding is absolutely vital. Some of it will be used to build on existing responsibilities, while the rest will be put towards bringing new things.
“The attendances here are fantastic when you consider the town’s population and people keep coming back because they like being here. As well as the theatre and cinema we have a lovely bar and restaurant which people can also take advantage of.
“I’m not saying I want people to be bouncing the place like a pinball and not go anywhere else, but it’s important that they know they can come here and there will be something that matches their interests.”
As well as enhancing his new workplace’s reputation at local level, one of Rooke’s biggest aims is to produce something at The Maltings which can be toured right around the UK. The new chief has a particular liking for musical theatre and believes there is a real gap in the market for a group to make this their speciality.
“After a year in America learning how to be a film composer I came back to England and have worked in all sorts of places such as The Haymarket in Leicester, Theatre Royal Stratford East and the National Theatre and have also been involved in quite a bit of Shakespeare, but my big passion has always been musicals,” he said. “There are not a lot of groups out there at the moment doing specialist musical theatre and other small towns have become beacons for niche things. For instance Wexford, a small place in Ireland, is now renowned for its theatre and Huddersfield has become famous for its contemporary music festival.
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t put a little beacon up here in Berwick for musical theatre and take our shows nationwide. It will earn more income for The Maltings and everyone loves a good musical.”
One of the productions Rooke has enjoyed most as a spectator over the past couple of years is Spittal Variety Group’s annual panto, mainly because of the local references. He is now hoping to encourage residents in Berwick and the surrounding area that there is something for them at The Maltings. “Whatever happens over the next couple of years we can’t take our existing audiences for granted,” he continued.
“They are the people who have put us in the favourable position we find ourselves in at present.
“It’s important that people know there is something on here that they will enjoy. It’s hard to second guess what people will like. For instance, you might think that orchestral music isn’t really for young people, but you’ve got to think that they come into contact with it all the time whether it’s playing a computer game or watching a Harry Potter film.
“I think the new year is a great time to start my job as everyone is in the mood for making resolutions. Hopefully one of those might be to come along and see more things at the theatre.”