August 20, 2020
This podcast is part of a series of case studies in which we speak to small business owners. Find out about the challenges and advantages of owning your own business, and pick up some advice on how to get started.
Founded in 2008 by a small group of actors, The Bear Pit Theatre is a voluntary organisation based in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. It aims to provide a venue for, and bring together, the different artistic and amateur groups in the town.
Read the full case study here - www.gov.uk/government/case-stu…es/bear-pit-theatre
Jocelyn Keedwell : Hello and welcome to the latest case study podcast. I'm Jocelyn. I'm from the company's Health Communications team, and I'm here today at The Bear Pit theatre with Pamela Hicks, David Mears and David Derrington all directors. Hello all, thank you very much for letting us in. Just wondering if you can maybe tell me a little bit about The Bear Pit Theatre and how you guys started?
Pamela: David and I, we got together at the very beginning with another friend and the reason being that we feared that what is now the play house next door was going to be shut down. There was going to be nowhere for amateurs to perform in the Stratford-upon-Avon. So we set about trying to find a venue.
David Mears: So that was in 2008. We started to have those conversations and ten years later we're here now in The Bear Pit Theatre. We felt it was really important that in a town that celebrates Shakespeare there should be a venue for local community groups and amateur theatre makers to produce work.
JK: So it was very much aimed at community groups and community theatre rather than some more established companies?
DM: Absolutely and before we started to find spaces and talk about setting up a venue we looked at lots of other community spaces. We did a tour all around London visited the Likes of Questers. We were very envious that the Talisman and The Priory theatre in Kenilworth had not one but two community-led venues. There's the Loft theatre in Lemmington and we're thinking well, hang on a minute. Why isn't there a community venue in Stratford-upon-Avon that’s in the heart of Warwickshire?
CH:So you said your first formed in 2008. Was it yourselves was there more people involved? Is it volunteer-based kind of thing?
David Derrington: It started with sort as they said with two things in mind really. One was to try and act as a sort of an embracing group for the other companies because we were all aware that all these people did not have a voice in Stratford. I mean so many of the theatres elsewhere are commissioned, run by, helped by local authorities and that sort of thing. In Stratford you've got the RSC. What else do you want? And so that was one of the things to try and do, to try and bring all these groups together. Perhaps we’ll come back to that and the second thing was to find the theatre. That's sort of where we were.
CH: So the actual theatre is based at the back of the United Reformed Church here in Stratford. So how did you find that space?
P: We were introduced to the then Minister here who, actually I think is a great thespian. He couldn't wait to have this space filled with actors and so he showed us around and said well, ‘’I'm happy that you get the opportunity to perform here”, at that time the church hall was being used for badminton and yoga and line dancing and goodness knows what, but he sort of allocated us long weekends, so that we can put on the shows.
CH: So how did you transition then from being a long weekend space to being sort of a fully functioning theatre that you've developed and you've refurbished and you put a lot of time and effort into?
DM: It became quite clear that we couldn't continue as we were doing because it was a lot of time to set it all up. We'd be building a rake for our audience to sit on, we'd be building a set and then we'd have to clear it in a matter of hours so badminton could play the following morning at 10 o'clock. So that was was quite hard. We had to sit down with the church and seriously talk about how we could progress this project in a more formal way rather than us just being seen as a hirer like any other user using that space.
CH: Did you speak to other community theatres or groups in the town, to get a bit of backing for this because you formed in 2008 and you didn't actually become a registered company until 2011 I believe. Those first couple of years was that setting up, seeing how things went, what sort of models would be best for you.
DM: We looked at as I say the Questers. We looked at Kenalworth, Talisman, Loft company.
Pamela: Oh yes in Teddington there's a little theatre company who had actually got lottery funding and built themselves a theatre so we looked at all sorts of options and that took a lot of time and also trying to find somewhere in Stratford. We were looking at warehouses and it took a long time to do that. In the meantime, the groups interest was waning, they wanted somewhere to perform. They didn't really want to be involved in the setting up, so that left the onus with us.
DM: Yeah. They were quite happy to talk about building a space, finding a space, but when it came to actually running the space, finding money to do it, etc. Everyone started to back off and thought well actually this is perhaps a bit too much for us? Etc. But we stuck with this.
CH: I was going to ask. What made you stick with it? Was it just a desire for it?
DD: I mean we felt there were a lot of diverse groups. So you've got actors, you've got music, you’ve got non-Performing Arts, painters and for instance the actors wanted the theatre, the painters wanted an exhibition space. All these sort of things were going on and we just couldn't do it all or find somewhere we could do it and we just got to a stage when we thought that let's forget that, let's find them a theatre space because we know that's what they want. And that's what we're good at.
P: we're all actors.
DM: So yes, we want to support the musicians. Yes, you want to support the Arts in terms of the artists and we still do that. In many other ways, but we thought how are we going to make a sustainable space, how we're going to raise money. Well, we can produce our own work, we can put on plays that's what we're good at doing so let's do that and let's focus our time on that and pull together a company of actors. A company to support what's happening in this building.
P: And that's been our policy from the start, that everything we earn is ploughed back in to the theatre.
CH: So was that maybe why you’ve registered to become a limited company? So you're a limited company by guarantee?
DD: Yes. We registered and we wanted to be a corporate. We realised we were going to deal with other companies. We were going to have creditors, debtor, as we're going to buy stuff, hire stuff. So we wanted to be a proper entity and that's why we became a limited company.
CH: Yeah, and you obviously also protected yourselves from liability.
DD: Yes, protecting ourselves, rather than being a ‘hotch pot’ of actors.
P: It also was necessary for the lease with the Church too.
DM: Yes, that was one of the stipulations.
CH: Okay. So it made sense to make that sort of business decision.
DD: Yeah, absolutely
CH: Because then you also registered about a year later as a charity.
DM: That's right. Yes.
DD: Well the other way around really. We registered first as Bear Pit Enterprises limited. That was when we were still looking at other groups, because obviously a social enterprise company has to be mindful of what's going on elsewhere, not just us. Then we decided that wasn't good, we couldn't really do that. We decided to change the name really to say what we do, we were a theatre and that was in 2013. Then in 2014, we registered as a charity.
CH: Yeah, and obviously because you were limited by guarantee you could register fairly easily because of the right company structure to be a charity.
DD: Quite easily yes.
DM: I think for all of us, it has been a learning curve as to how to register a company, how to approach the charity commission and so on and so forth. Just to take advantage of grants and other benefits that a limited company bring.
CH: Did you sort of get any guidance on that? Did you speak to an accountant or did you look at any sort of research online?
DD: Well, the other girl who started it with these two, her husband was an accountant. Still is an accounted for us now. So yes, we had that sort of guidance.
CH: Yeah, and you obviously are all volunteers. You obviously are aware of your responsibilities as directors, so, you know about annual accounts, confirmation statements, charity commissioners accounts, but do you use an accountant do that for you?
DD: Yeah, mostly yes. The accounts are so complicated because we've got our set of accounts and the charity side seems to be a completely different set of accounts and we have to file them at different times. So yes, the accountants are hugely important as far as we're concerned and we're quite a big business now. We’re quite a complicated business. There's a lot of stuff going on, so yes, we have an accountant to do all that. None of us are accountants.
P: And it was an advantage that he was already administering other little companies so he could advise us as well on how we want to go forward.
CH: So you've made a lot of changes at the theatre. You've obviously invested a lot of the profits that you've made from being a company back into the theatre.
CH: I've noticed that you've made a lot of refurbishments backstage. Have you been able to apply for grants and funding?
DM: The room that we're sitting at the moment was care of a grant so this was a ginormous open room, a rather cold room, and thanks to a grant we managed to put this mezzanine level in so we've got a dedicated dressing room space on the ground floor and then above us we've got our beautifully organised costume department so now we have the storage space up there to accommodate stuff which we didn't have before.
CH: So you've been able to improve space for your company and you have visiting companies here now too and not just your own?
DM: That's right.
DD: That’s what its for of course, our own company benefits because we enjoy putting on plays but is hugely financially important to us to pay the rent so that we can have the others. It's lovely to hear them say every time they come ‘’Oh you've done this, this time’’. Every year we've done something that's different.
CH: So there's how many directors for the company?
DD: Eight directors.
CH: Do you have regular meetings to talk about the direction of the company?
DM: Yeah once a month and we are all sort of theoretically chosen because we've got something different to give.
CH: Yes. I was going to say so it’s obviously changed over the years sort of different directors. So you just said it's your 10th anniversary this year. What would you say you're most proud of?
P: I think it's when we put on a production and this is very selfish, but when we put on a production, it's the fact that each time, we see people who come back and back and back. We've now got a very loyal following in the town and the neighbouring areas and it's just so thrilling to know that from nothing we've created this.
DM: We've welcomed thousands of people through the door every year now and loyal people that have come back to support our work and that's what's exciting.
CH: Yeah, and obviously a lot has changed.
DM: Well people know who the Bear Pit theatre is now. People know the brand, they know the logo and people will not book a show unless it says The Bear Pit.
DD: That's not totally true, [laughing] but that can be edited.
CH: What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced in starting the company? So you've talked about the community sort of liking the idea of it, but maybe not necessarily being able to spare the time. Do you find volunteers? It can be a bit difficult work-life balance sometimes.
P: Hideously so.
DM: So yes, we are reliant on volunteers. We are reliant on Pam and David to do things but yeah, I mean without the volunteers doing all of the stuff that they do we wouldn't be where we are now.
P: And that is the hardest thing too, because it's asking an awful lot of people not just to come and I don’t know manage the box office once every so often. We need people backstage to organise the costumes to you know just administrate the backstage.
DM: Yes. That's right. But everyone is important.
P: Absolutely, everyones job is important.
DM: It's making sure that everyone does feel important. That they are playing a part in making this building and what happens onstage, you know, good.
CH: Do you think that's what's been a really important is the goodwill of those volunteers and a passion and belief in the theatre? Because as you said you’re actors and you have a love for theatre and you can't live in Stratford and not be aware of the theatre so that must have to come through in your day-to-day tasks and maybe when you're having a bit of a ‘’oh I’ve got to go and do the lighting rig today or something’’ It must be that what carries you through it.
P: There's an awful lot of commitment from all those people and we've been very lucky in that we’ve just recently tapped into sixth formers who want to go on to do this as a career not just the acting but the sound and the lighting and we're very lucky.
CH: It's great. You've obviously got the college and you've got the high school and the grammar school nearby. Maybe sort of looking forward to future plans, do you think that's something you might want to see? What opportunities are there for them?
DM: This is something that we noticed when we did our investigations years ago, that Questers has a very unique relationship with the educational world and again, that could be a good way to go.
P: Yes, but when we have one or two, it's just an indication that it might become a trickle which is so lovely.
DM: We also have a lot of retirement homes in Stratford as well so again its very key, very important, always looking for new members.
CH: You’re always looking for a new members, new writers, actors, performers?
DM: Always looking for new members.
CH: Well, It has been lovely to speak to you and to listen to your passion for what you do and you know and theatre obviously comes through. I want to wish the Bear Pit all the success in the future. Thank you ever so much for letting us in and talking to us.
DM: Thank you
CH: For anyone out there who may be interested in what we've been speaking about today. There's lots of guys guidance and information on our website, which is www.gov.uk/companieshouse
. Thank you very much again and thank you for listening.