Having been Director there between 1993 and 1996, I am very sad. I joined it a shoe-string operation and left it not much better off. My predecessors had been on the same journey and subsequent Directors have fought the same battles that I had done. During the years of its existence as a theatre purveying a diverse programme of both professional and amateur work there have been some extraordinary highlights. There was much to entertain, divert, inform and move a wide demographic. Theatre, music, dance, visual art, children's work and a participation programme that was the envy of many. And now it's gone. Just like that.
Founded by volunteers and having undergone a gradual transfer to a professionally staffed organisation, the place had a unique quality. I arrived to a staff of 10 paid workers and some 250 volunteers. They ran the Box Office, the Front of House, the Catering and some of the office functions. More recently the theatre had swelled in importance as an employer and the figures we are offered show 55 full and part time people in danger of losing their livelihood. The remaining volunteers will certainly discover a hole in their lives. If ever there was community ownership of a theatre, here was living proof of its existence. The importance and predominance of performances by amateur companies was also testament to that sense of being at the heart of things. And now it's gone. Just like that.
Blame is an ugly word. It usually causes more strife than the original problem. The repercussions of blame tend to rumble on toxically for years. I should know, having been, in my turn, blamed for some of the difficulties that the Brewhouse encountered following my departure. Even now that blame, totally unwarranted in my belief, still colours the history of my tenure. Deep in the recesses of Arts Council England there is a black mark against my name. I can't even smile about it now, some 20 years later.
Thus let us not blame anyone for the demise of Somerset's cultural flagship. Let us cooly and rationally try to work out why it has been allowed to die. It can't be the staff's fault. They have loved it and nurtured it as all arts workers tend to do for the buildings and initiatives they subsidise with their own time and extraordinary goodwill. Similarly the volunteers are spotless beacons of selflessness and commitment. It can't be the tens of thousands of audiences and participants in workshops who have eagerly consumed the programme of work and entertainment on offer. On occasion there could have been more of them, but in the main they were loyal and numerous.
The problem is systemic and social. To offer professional arts to a wide demographic implies that they must be affordable. By their very nature they are expensive to produce. The gap can be, and is, filled by a medley of income streams. But it is never truly filled and public funding, like it or not, is always necessary unless the arts is to become a football economy and tickets grow so expensive that the work exceeds the reach of most pockets.
I do not blame the individual members or officers Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council or Arts Council England in particular. They are writhing about in the snake filled pit of social demand versus available financial supply. When faced with closing hospitals and the rationalisation of essential public services how can a case be made for a theatre and arts centre?
But, God damn it, how can a society that prides itself on its culture and its heritage allow it to happen? The demise of the Brewhouse is the most recent nail in the coffin of the live arts experience which, like the continued existence of the topical black rhino, is in real jeopardy. Society's seeming indifference will result in people turning around to demand "Where has it gone?" And it will, by then, be too late.
Where is the political leadership that dares speak the unspeakable and really champion the arts? When will the lily-livered, besuited, uninformed, craven, fork-tongued people find someone from within their ranks to drive though a different sort of change which recognises both the relative importance and the real cost of what we do?
In the case of the Brewhouse, Somerset County Council has already abnegated its responsibility in this respect. Bewilderingly, Arts Council England did so some years ago. Taunton Deane Borough Council appear to have joined the bandwagon of playing Pilate, shrugging their shoulders hopelessly, washing their hands and walking away.
It may already too late to do anything about it. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: The funders found out that the Brewhouse could not live, that is what I mean — so the Brewhouse died.
Much play will be made of returning the building to the community. On the one hand this is probably true and possibly laudable, though fraught with difficulty. It is, however, also a massively convenient excuse for a total dereliction of a social duty for which we must all take responsibility.