Work of Live Theatre is showcased in New York

Jim Beirne, chief executive of Newcastle's Live Theatre, will be giving a talk tomorrow at the International Society for the Performing Arts congress in New York

Live Theatre production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, which proved a hit in New York
Live Theatre production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, which proved a hit in New York

After the Broadway success of home-grown hits such as The Pitmen Painters, the boss of Live Theatre is back in New York this week to keep local talent firmly in the spotlight.

Jim Beirne, chief executive of the quayside theatre, will be giving a talk tomorrow at the International Society for the Performing Arts congress in the Big Apple where he is confident of stirring up more interest in its recent stage shows.

Lee Hall’s ongoing success story The Pitmen Painters, about the real-life Ashington miners turned artists, made its debut at Live in 2007 then went down a storm on its transfer from the West End to Broadway, where Hall’s musical Billy Elliot has enjoyed similar acclaim.

Mr Beirne has since worked hard to maintain Live’s wider profile, taking up annual invitations to attend the twice-yearly ISPA congress which takes place at New York then at different cities across the world.

In 2005 it came to Sage Gateshead whose director Anthony Sargent took over last year as chairman of the ISPA board alongside officer members from America and Brazil.

“It’s a honour,” says Mr Beirne of his new invitation to speak on the second day of the congress where he will join representatives from US arts organisation Cal Performances and Sydney Opera House in Australia to discuss The Art of Business.

“It’s about how we can sustain cultural organisations and keep growing in what are changed times – changed forever. We all need to think about how we can continue to develop culture and the arts.”

On previous visits he has sparked interest in the “enterprising solutions” which Live has adopted over the past few years to help it withstand the harsh economic climate.

“We had great support from the council and Arts Council but knew they were unlikely to have lots more resources so we were going to have to do something differently.”

This included branching out with gastro-pub venture The Broad Chare with Terry Laybourne; starting an online playwriting course, and transforming its old schoolhouse building into a creative business hub which now has its first tenant.

“It’s all a pretty new model for sustainability and growth for arts organisations,” says Mr Beirne.

“The Broad Chare was just voted one of the best gastro-pubs in the country by the Times and we earn about £35,000 a year.” But it’s not about money. It’s an asset, he says, which can pay for the first draft of a play at the new writing theatre.

The conference is all about sharing ideas and making valuable contacts while learning what other arts organisations are doing. Mr Beirne says: “It’s great to meet 600 of my colleagues around the world.

“It’s a great platform and a mix of listening, learning and presenting.”

Before flying out at the weekend, he added: “If we want to be a great region and a great city, we have to understand what other great regions and great cities are doing in my business world of culture. Understanding what they have to offer and comparing them gives me a context within which to set and guide Live.”

He is confident that future tours of recent work will emerge from the event and that Live will “end up doing a project very shortly” with an overseas producer.

At pitch sessions in the past he has generated interest in 2010 hit A Northern Odyssey, a play by Shelagh Stephenson about 19th Century US artist Winslow Homer’s time spent painting in Cullercoats, and recent Live and Edinburgh Fringe hit Captain Amazing by Middlesbrough’s Alistair McDowall, 26.

He says while Pitmen ended up on Broadway after an American producer saw it at the National Theatre in London, it would otherwise have been snapped up at the pitch.

Last year Live spent a lot of money on a varied programme to mark its 40th birthday year and Mr Beirne says of the future: “I think the private sector recession might be over from an economic point of view but I do think in the public sector there may be worse to come.”

He expects Live to make an announcement about a big project at the end of January and adds: “It’s going to be a tough year but I can see my way through it.”

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