The most effective way of using the Empire as an arts venue is to have it run under the auspices of the Central Bank management who currently administer the Frank Collymore Hall (FCH). In this way, the administration is minimized with both operating under the same management team. We have to approach the task at hand in a holistic way, it is the only way, it is the only way.
While the Empire would run as a performing arts venue solely, the FCH ought to be marketed for business meetings, equipped with the latest in teleconferencing services, presentations, recordings, other ancillary services and of course serve as a performing arts venue. The FCH has limited wing space, no fly space, a shallow stage and no orchestra pit and its seating is small. To put in an orchestra pit would mean sacrificing about 100 to 150 seats and the expense of excavation to access the pit by underground would take it out of use for a long period of time.
The work begins with the need to build competitive packages to attract record companies that meet or undercut other international studios. This would include a cooperative effort by local stakeholders; the waiving of taxes on equipment brought in by recording companies by government and the like.
Then, there needs to be a major marketing push, Barbados, because of Rihanna has become a top of the mind name across the globe, we are ideally placed to be able to approach prominent names in the business. People like Simon Cowell, Mick Jagger and L.A. Read to name three. If we build it, they will come because Barbados is not unfamiliar, these people have become known faces on the West Coast of Barbados over the years.
The Empire, we know, will need to be gutted and therefore it can be restructured to include balconies to maximise seating, wing space, fly space and an orchestra pit. That means that it will not be as acoustically compliant as the FCH. However, the limitation on shows that can be performed would be greatly eased. The Empire also ought to have a sprung stage to accommodate dance at the ballet level.
There is no point in thinking however that shows in Barbados can just take off from the get go. Those of us who visit the theatre when we have reason to travel to New York or London for example, the most a major production can sustain itself in Barbados is probably 3 nights. It means that theatre is not the kind of production to be cost-effective to start with. The key to making it work is to marry what some aspire to do in Barbados with our tourism product. By expanding our tourism advertising and landing major names to perform, then, little by little, pre-sales can be managed as a part of the tourism attraction for example and it will lead to being able to sustain shows for longer periods of time and make them more cost-effective.
Hopefully with people like Sir Cliff and others like him living in Barbados who happen to be rich and can identify with a project like this, it will ensure breakeven i.e. it can sustain itself. Major theatres around the world, it is known, rely in the main on contributions from patrons etc. Perhaps Sir Charles, Sir Kyffin and other local deep pockets maybe persuaded to contribute.
The key is to enable the Barbados environment to grow interest and support in the Arts and by extension the cultural industry. In this process our local cadre of artistes will benefit from participation in the process. We have to take baby steps, something our local cadre of artistes must accept. Here is an ideal opportunity to set up an apprentice scheme for people interested in pursing a career in the arts both locally and internationally. This is what leveraging our level of education and diversifying our economy is all about.
What about the many tours undertaken by performing arts groups. One such is the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, which undertakes world tours playing for one or two nights on each stop. Then, there is the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets. And this is just Russia. Then, there are theatrical touring companies of productions such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera and the like. So far we have had to make do with a periodic visit from the Chinese. Two or three nights of any of those mentioned would sell out as soon as the tickets went on sale. Also, there is the opportunity to do pantomimes, which need to have a local flavour and be performed by local artists with a local political and social satire – and those would sustain for a longer run. St. Winifreds School and Peoples Cathedral Christmas programs come to mind which are hugely popular. In such an environment there is the opportunity to inspire local productions.
The debate about the Arts and the need to grow culture in Barbados must be discussed, planned and prioritized by our policymakers with more urgency. Yes we have to design the strategy to ensure that as a sector it can sustain itself but the expression of a people is so important to defining identify, until we do so we will continue to be rudderless on the global seas where national boundaries have become blurred and by extension weak indigenous culture has become watered-down.
To our friends in the local Arts community who have been frustrated over the years to the lip service given to culture in Barbados, we feel your pain but the journey will be long and tortuous but it is one which must be started.