The Jersey Arts Centre has been educating, inspiring and encouraging creative debate for four decades. Its director says more government support is needed to ensure its future
IF you attended one of the first performances staged at Jersey Arts Centre in 1983, then you may remember that, rather than being shown to your seat, you were encouraged to bring your own cushion on which to sit.
‘Although the building opened as planned on 20 January 1983, not all of the work had been completed because of a lack of funds, something which is so often the case in the arts world,’ explained joint executive and artistic director Daniel Austin. ‘However, in a demonstration of the resourcefulness, adaptability and creativity that is typical of those in the industry, the opening show went ahead despite the lack of seating.’
In fact, it took a further four years to raise the money needed to furnish the auditorium in the style of a theatre. But those four years were nothing compared to the time it took for the Arts Centre to progress from initial concept to opening night.
‘In the late-60s, a group of people including Robert Tilling, Buick Pemberton and former Bailiff Sir Philip Bailhache agreed that the Island needed an arts centre, which would deliver courses and workshops, a space for local societies and groups to hold events, a stage for professional performances and creative and exhibition facilities,’ said Daniel.
‘When this group became founding members of the Jersey Arts Council in 1970, plans for such a space continued, with the site – formerly the Education Department’s catering college – being identified in the late-70s.’
With the project requiring significant funds, it was agreed that the government would allocate £250,000 towards the building costs – as long as the Jersey Arts Council raised a similar amount first.
With the financing in place, the venue was able to start fulfilling the council’s vision of a space which would enrich the quality of life for Islanders and visitors, encourage participation in performing, visual and literary arts, and educate, inspire and encourage debate.
And, while some of the mediums may have evolved over the past four decades, with digital now rising in prominence, Daniel says that the core values remain unchanged.
Having joined the Arts Centre almost 22 years ago, Daniel’s own love of the arts began in childhood when he remembers becoming fascinated with one particular genre.
‘As a family, we were always at the cinema or watching films,’ he smiled. ‘I remember my parents allowing me to get out of bed and sneak downstairs to watch extra films while my sister was asleep. Later, when I was a teenager and juggling two after-school jobs, cleaning windows and delivering newspapers, I saved all my money and put it towards VHS tapes, books, train fares to London and theatre and cinema tickets.
‘On Saturdays, I used to get a train to Paddington, followed by the Bakerloo Line to Leicester Square, where I would queue at The Half-price Ticket Booth and get a ticket for the matinée before going to McDonald’s and then coming back to see one of the big musicals in the evening. It was then a mad dash to get to Paddington in time to catch the last train back to Langley.’
These excursions might have had their fraught moments but they instilled in Daniel a love of theatre which has never left him. While his dreams of going to drama school received a temporary setback after he failed his A-levels at the first attempt, leading him to resit his exams before going on to study a degree in English and Drama at The Roehampton Institute, he did eventually achieve his ambition.
‘When I graduated, I still really wanted to go to drama school, so I completed an advanced certificate of acting at the Welsh College of Music Drama, before spending the next ten years doing a combination of acting, directing and teaching roles,’ he recalled.
Between each job, Daniel travelled, spending time in Israel, America, Zimbabwe, Bali and Australia before a sojourn in India focused his thoughts.
‘I was spending four months in India when I decided that if I was serious about building a career in theatre, I needed to stop teaching and apply for every acting and directing job that came along,’ he said.
His mind made up to ‘take the first job that came along’, his first stop after India was at The Castle Theatre in Wellingborough, which is where he was working when a friend sent him a job advert cut out of The Guardian.
‘Accompanying the advert – for the role of director at Jersey Arts Centre – was a card saying: “This job looks amazing; you should apply for it.” It took me until just before the closing date to submit my application but I was thrilled to be invited for an interview, conducted by then chairman Peter Hunt,’ he said.
‘It was a tough interview but the questions and direction in which the theatre was heading excited me, yet it was made very clear during that initial conversation that if I was appointed director, I would not have the time to direct some plays and musicals.’
Excited by the challenge, Daniel readily accepted the job and has not only directed more than 70 productions in the intervening 22 years, including the most recent Christmas show, Alice in Wonderland, but has also developed the centre’s education and community initiatives.
‘We now have six theatre companies, spanning all ages from eight-year-olds to adults,’ he said. ‘In addition to the shows which we put on at the Arts Centre, we have also animated a number of Island events including Holocaust Memorial Day and Liberation Day.’
Particularly memorable for Daniel was a youtheatre production of Romeo and Juliet, performed in Bad Wurzach, the German town twinned with St Helier.
‘In the original play, there is a scene at the end where the two warring families – the Capulets and Montagues – are reconciled,’ he explained. ‘In our adaptation, Jenny McCarthy handed the twinning certificate to [St Helier Constable] Simon Crowcroft and he presented it to Roland Bürkle, the mayor of Bad Wurzach. It was a very poignant moment and hugely humbling to be part of an event which recalled the Occupation while bringing Jersey and Germany together in friendship.’
And Daniel says that the arts have a great role to play in ‘bridging gaps and building relationships’.
‘Whether you look at music, dance, drama or literature, during a performance, something is always communicated with the audience which, without sounding too clichéd, represents our human condition,’ he said. ‘Our lives and learnings are expressed through the medium and when these are shared with an audience, something quite poignant and spiritual happens for both the audience and the performers.
‘I will never forget one ten-year-old performer coming up to me after a concert in March and saying that “Jersey Arts Centre enhances my life”. They were such simple and heartfelt words but they really crystallised what we all experience, thanks to theatre, from time to time.’
Helping to share those experiences as widely as possibly, last year alone, the Arts Centre team delivered 236 ticketed performances, for which 24,572 tickets were sold, as well as 75 courses and workshops, of which 55 took place in schools, involving more than 1,400 participants.
The figures are remarkable, especially as the theatre world was still impacted by Covid at the beginning of the year.
‘The pandemic and resultant lockdowns are still creating challenges and I would say that, only now, are we starting to get back to offering a full professional programme of events,’ Daniel said. ‘Continuing to develop this will be a challenge but the biggest challenge for the next couple of years will be securing the funds from the Government of Jersey to maintain this building. If this cannot be achieved, then we risk finding ourselves in a similar position to other closed venues.’
Despite this not-insignificant challenge, Daniel remains positive about the centre’s future.
‘We have incredible support from our staff, management committee, exhibitions committee, audiences, volunteers and the community at large, so, as a director, I couldn’t be in a richer position,’ he said. ‘With such strong support for arts in Jersey, I am confident that the Jersey Arts Centre will continue to develop what it has delivered from the day its doors opened in 1983.’