Meet John Martin, the man who turned Trinity Theatre around

Fran Taylor

As we continue our look at Tunbridge Wells culture, theatre is of course an integral part of the artistic landscape. Since it opened in 1982, Trinity Theatre has gone from strength to strength, offering a wealth of varied entertainment. We catch up with theatre director John Martin, who talks us through the initial challenges the venue faced, how he helped turn things round and what the future holds for one of the town’s iconic arts centres…

Tell us about how you first got involved with Trinity
I first got involved five years ago. I was asked to come in when we had just lost our Arts Council funding and were facing a £40,000 deficit. I worked for a year and a bit as a volunteer to see whether we could turn things round, as it was pretty rock bottom. I’d been in theatre in some shape or form for most of my life, but I’d never run a theatre before. My only consolation was that I certainly couldn’t make it any worse! It was very scary, because it’s all very well for me to step in as a volunteer, but people’s jobs and livelihoods depended on it. It was, as the Chinese curse goes, ‘interesting times’.

How did you go about reviving it?
First of all, it was looking at the financial arrangements and changing the deals we did. In those very early days, it did mean cancelling some shows because they weren’t selling, it was firefighting there; looking at the deals, looking at the programme and trying to find stuff, because the building had lost contact with the artistic world. The other thing was looking at costs and holding everything down, which is, to an extent, classic crisis management.

That seems to have done the trick…
It was a slow and difficult haul and I made loads of mistakes, but it was a learning curve. It wasn’t a very pleasant period and it certainly wasn’t sustainable, but it worked and did the trick of actually turning things round in a slightly different form and with a slightly different ethos.

We did quite a substantial turnaround that first year – I’m in show business and I need to keep both elements balanced, but in that first year we were focussing more on ‘business’ than ‘show’.

Do a lot of volunteers get involved?
We’ve got a volunteer base of 150, which is absolutely fantastic. If we didn’t have that, we would be out of business in a heartbeat. Everybody in this building gives more time, which is something else I’ve been striving to do; to get the culture that we’re one team and we’re working together. The volunteers don’t take their jobs any less seriously.

As well as theatre, you also offer cinema, live music and comedy – have these different elements made a difference?
It’s certainly key for what we do, but it doesn’t dominate. The majority of stuff’s here for one night, so sometimes it will sell and sometimes it won’t, but that has been an absolute lifeline to me and continues to be. It caters to a different audience, but it’s no substitute for a multiplex because we will never get first-run movies. The other thing that has made a massive difference to us is NT Live (National Theatre productions screened at different venues) and the Royal Opera House; they have proven very, very popular.

Where do you get your funding?
We’ve received core funding only from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. That’s going down over the next three years because they’re under enormous financial pressure. They’ve stuck with us through thick and thin and have been tremendously supportive, but equally, we know what pressures they’re under, so we’re working with them and putting plans in place so we know in advance that it’s going down. We also get corporate support for the sponsor of a season and the Christmas show.

Has the recession had an impact on the theatre?
This is only guesswork, but it has a benefit, in that people can’t afford to go to London but they can afford to come here, in times of crisis is when entertainment can flourish – comedy thrives because people want to laugh and want escapism, so those conditions have helped us.

How has your audience changed?
We’ve seen our audience shift more to the young professionals in their 30s and 40s. That element has grown and we’ve encouraged that. We have a thriving youth theatre, but where we struggle is the gap in between. We’re not a university town; it’s a terrible cliché, but what tends to happen is that people leave Tunbridge Wells, go to university, then come back when they want to settle down and have a family. But we aren’t giving up, because youngsters are the theatregoers of the future, so it’s about finding that audience.

Is there a big market for content that people might not expect, or do you have to play it safe in terms of what you include in your programme?
Sadly, the edgier it is, the less likely you are to get an audience. It’s the same in the West End; if people are investing money, they want to know what they’re getting, which is depressing for new work to survive but on the other hand, you can understand it.

Being based in a former church must be quite a talking point…
This building is both a blessing and a curse in that you can’t see in from the outside. Churches weren’t designed to be open spaces – it’s happening less and less, but we still get people coming in wanting to know what time the service is. You were supposed to enter them with a sense of reverence and they were there to impose authority, which isn’t quite the image you want from a theatre and arts centre. But when you’re in here, it’s just a wonderful space to be in.

What are your thoughts on Tunbridge Wells culture in general?
Overall, it’s on the up. There’s a lot going on and there’s a strong community here of practitioners and artists in all disciplines and genres. With its cultural strategy, the council can be behind it. I’m optimistic about what’s going on; you never know what’s round the corner and you’re always as good as your last show.

Are there specific events that are the most profitable?
The biggest money spinner now is alternative content like NT Live. That’s been a lifeline for us. But it isn’t just that, the shows and live performances are going up and up. We’ve been consistently selling out comedy, drama and music have been doing well. The one elusive genre is dance. Flamenco works and tango works, but I haven’t been able to get the companies to come and do contemporary dance. The challenge is to keep moving, keep inventing and finding new ways of doing things. The comedy cafés work, which is a prime example that we’re trying everything to make it work. There’s a lot of competition in the market.

And your vision for the future of Trinity?
We need to sustain and build on what we’re doing. We’ll be facing a very real challenge over the next three years to sustain where we are with our funding going down £15,000 per year. When we’re effectively £45,000 down, it’s going to be a real challenge, so we’ve got to come up with a strategy to maintain where we are and, if we can, grow while seeing that funding going down. For the first time ever in the last five years, we’ve been showing a surplus after depreciation, whereas if you go back before that five-year period, we were showing a loss, so that’s been a massive turnaround.

It’s still a struggle and what we need to do and have been doing is investing in the building. What I would also like us to do is create more, find other opportunities to work with local artists and, where we can, encourage and engage.


ADDRESS: Church Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1JP
TEL: 01892 678 678
TWITTER: @trinitytheatre

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