Maltings chief on a mission to get more from less

Matthew Rooke at The Maltings
Matthew Rooke at The Maltings

AFTER one year in the hotseat as artistic director and chief executive at The Maltings, Matthew Rooke says his admiration for what the venue does has only grown, in difficult circumstances.

“My predecessor, Miles Gregory,” he says, eager to give credit, “proved that there is a greater appetite for high class, top-quality art in Berwick than had previously been assumed.

“But it’s always on a knife-edge. Anybody who thinks that the answers to funding for something like the Maltings lies in local or central government is living in the wrong century.

“People tell me, ‘You’re the artistic director, what are you talking up waste disposal contracts and things for?’

“But a venture like this depends on the details, and renegotiating that contract to nearly half of what we were paying could be crucial.

“One of the best things that we managed to sort out this year is the heating! As well as the obvious advantages in the building, it saved us around £2,000.

“And things like that can make the difference between being able to book somebody and not.”

In the year just gone, Berwick’s theatre and arts venue built a reputation among comedians as an ideal place to try out material before long tours.

“In the year ahead we want to seize on what we’ve been doing with comedy,” says Rooke.

“That’s something that we can offer because here you can be up close with your audience. I noticed that a lot of them try out different material on different audiences – especially looking for reactions to Scottish jokes as opposed to English. Contrast that to playing somewhere like Wembley. You’re almost unable to know if you’re really funny in that space, by a law of physics.”

The major development at The Maltings in 2013 will be the switch to digital projection, which will cut down the waiting time for new films to hit Berwick. It will also boost other art forms.

The first digital film showing will be on March 1, following a week of re-fitting. Rooke is looking forward to it immensely.

“I’m hoping to confirm the latest Die Hard film with Bruce Willis,” he says, “because, if you’re going to go to see a proper popcorn movie, then you should go all the way. It could be a nice contrast, as well, because that same week we have Barry Norman, the famous film critic, coming in to do an audience.

“He’ll be talking about the history of film, and the ones that affected him most deeply, and that would be a great juxtaposition.”

The ease and lower costs of digital projection also allow 
The Maltings to offer an ever-increasing range of live feeds, including national ballet groups and performances from the Royal Opera.

The digitalisation project, together with a planned upgrade studio lighting, means that valuable hours previously spent setting up the stage (around 24 working hours for a theatre show, and six just for a comedian) can now be filled with what the venue needs most and does best – programming.

“The ease of programming the new lights enables us to offer a programme where we can show a kids’ film, a matinee, a comedian and then a later film showing, where previously we couldn’t. It’s fantastic.

“Whatever we do, we’re going to do it in Technicolour.”

That includes the first professional musical in The Maltings’ history, when Summer Holiday takes to the stage later this year. Rooke is also hoping to nurture local talent, and looks forward to being able to orchestrate tours.

He says: “I see no reason why we can’t be a centre for musical theatre. It all depends on maximising what we have, and hopefully creating a sense of public ownership, similar to what you can see in places like Alnwick.

“Our Friends of The Maltings scheme is going from strength to strength, and we have a massive audience on Twitter and Facebook, which just broke through the 5,000 mark.

“We would love to prove to people what a strong sense of public ownership can do.

“What I would also like to see is more conversation with both Scottish Borders Council and the Scottish government.

“Most of our largest audiences last year were from north of the border. This isn’t just a case of ‘We’re entertaining people from your country, give us some money.’

“It’s about the practicalities of what we provide,which obviously is something that is not offered on the Scottish side.

“We want that to continue, because we are obviously a great way of reaching people.”