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Astor Theatre boss says there is 'no urgency' from council to save music venue

A man who resurrected a derelict theatre and turned it into a nationally recognised venue said there seems to be "no urgency" from local government to save it.

James Tillitt, artistic director at the Astor Community Theatre in Deal, is pulling out all the stops to keep the venue in business but he is frustrated by the bureaucratic process that's slowing up his request for crisis funds.

Artistic director at the Astor Community Theatre James Tillitt
Artistic director at the Astor Community Theatre James Tillitt

He said: "We are in limbo - hoping for the best outcome but planning for the worst."

Extended social distancing - be it two or one metre distances - will destroy his audience capacity when he is allowed to reopen. He says it'll make the Stanhope Road operation unviable once he has paid theatre overheads and the costs associated with running the concerts, stage shows, cinema and public events it is respected for.

Mr Tillitt, who refurbished the theatre in 2009 and reopened it in 2010, said it's "inconceivable" to him that Deal Town Council wouldn't contribute to the Astor's survival given the extraordinary success and the community support the theatre has.

He applied in March for money from the Emergency Grant Aid scheme but was told individual grants were worth £2,000 - significantly less than the theatre needs. He asked them to consider giving a larger sum like they did in 2009 to help pay for the renovation, but where requests for discretionary funding are beyond the town clerk's powers to decide, it must be debated by the full council in public when it meets on July 28.

He said: "In May of 2009 I signed the lease for the Astor Community Theatre and began an incredible six-month journey of restoration and regeneration for this much loved Deal icon.

The Astor Theatre was refurbished in 2009 and reopened in 2010
The Astor Theatre was refurbished in 2009 and reopened in 2010

"From those early days of inheriting a derelict building to where we are now, a nationally recognised venue with a full programme of events booked through the rest of 2020 and into 2021, this experience has been an extraordinary privilege as well as the most fulfilling job I have ever had.

"We were also planning a joint celebration this spring with the Astor celebrating not only 10 hugely successful years but also the 75th year since the Astor family gave the building to the people of Deal. "Sadly, no longer."

He, like thousands of other entertainment spots, had to cancel future shows, classes, private events and weddings.

All income streams stopped and out of desperation, a crowdfunding campaign was launched, so far raising £14,000 to pay for immediate overheads like bills and insurance.

"This is serious...The harsh reality is that we are in danger of closure...."

Mr Tillitt said: "This extraordinary generosity is testament to the high regard the community of Deal have for this building and what it represents.

"Our efforts over these past years has always been to serve the community with entertainment, films, live broadcasts, classes, apprenticeship and work experience programmes for disadvantaged young people, community events, etc.

"The harsh reality is that we, as in common with every other theatre or live music venue, are in danger of closure.

"Continued social distancing restrictions, whether it is one metre or two, means that we are no longer a viable business. If this goes on much longer, it is hard to imagine any theatre surviving without a major cash injection, further help for freelancer musicians, actors, technicians, front of house staff and an extension of the Job Retention Scheme to pull them back from the brink.

"This is serious.

Penny Harvey, of Stagecatz theatre school is leading the art raffle fundraiser which will be drawn every week from July 10.
Penny Harvey, of Stagecatz theatre school is leading the art raffle fundraiser which will be drawn every week from July 10.

"Without swift action there will be little left for audiences to see when restrictions are lifted.

"At the moment all events, classes, weddings are cancelled until the end of August.

"The next deeply upsetting step is to cancel the autumn season as well. This will disappoint all our loyal customers but will also spell additional gloom for the many bands, theatre companies, comedians and others who were due to perform at the Astor. "

As well as the crowdfunding campaign, support for the theatre has come in from regular customer Penny Harvey of Stagecatz Theatre School. She has launched the Great Art Raffle from which proceeds will go towards the theatre's bills. Tickets go on sale next Friday.

Paul Bone, responsible finance officer at Deal Town Council said: “As a Town Council, Deal Town Council does not have direct access to any of the government funds that have been made available for supporting businesses or organisations as this is all controlled by the District Council as advised to Mr Tillitt.

"In late March Deal Town Council Officers did agree, using delegated powers, to divert all the remaining funds available within the various grant streams run by the council into a single Emergency Grant Aid scheme with a budget of £15,000 that allowed for individual Emergency Aid Grants of up-to £2,000 each"

He explained the option for £2,000 is still is open to the Astor andhe would need to wait until July 28 to find out if more funds could be given.

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