The late arrival of snow was a challenge for staff at Swindon’s theatres, with shows postponed and hundreds of customers to contact.

Fortunately, three of the shows hit by the late blast of winter weather could be rescheduled, and only one was cancelled, a performance of Macbeth at Swindon Arts Centre.

Derek Aldridge, director of Swindon Theatres, said they worked hard to sort out the situation as well as they could.

“We wanted to make sure nobody went away empty-handed,” he explained. “During the first lot of snow we had a show by Mark Steel. He arrived at about eight in the morning, and we had sold 450 tickets. About half the people came, but he’s coming back on July 26.”

Taking care of the audience has been the prime consideration for Derek, since taking over as director of the Wyvern in 2009. Five years later, he took over the directorship of the arts centre too.

“Overall progress has been very pleasing,” he said. “Audiences have grown over the last few years. They trust our programme and see we are striving to keep improving the variety and quality. When people see the programme they want to pick it up and are pleased with what’s in it. Swindon is a growing town. We have a lot of young families here – it’s a key demographic.”

Derek has always loved drama and the theatre. He grew up in Southampton, and after A levels, took a gap year.

“I moved to London, aged 18. My parents paid for three months’ rent and then it was down to me. So I got a job,” he said. His first post was as an usher at the Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury, working in the ticket office, selling ice creams and doing whatever needed to be done

“I worked hard and I was enthusiastic,” he said. “By the end of the year I realised there were lots of careers in theatre. I went on to do a drama and history degree at Worcester, then got a job at the Everyman in Cheltenham, in 1996.”

His first job after graduating was in the marketing and ticketing department, but after two years he moved on to the new Milton Keynes Theatre, where he was part of the launch team. He returned to Cheltenham to be head of marketing and sales at just 25, then took over the running of Cheltenham Town Hall as its general manager.

Now he works for HQ Theatres and Hospitality, which manages the Wyvern and the art centre, though Derek says they work very closely with Swindon Borough Council, the owners of the two premises. And both venues are closely linked to the community, with a host of performances put by community groups, schools and performing art academies.

“When programming, you try to lead your audience to new work, but you do need to listen very closely,” he said. “I live locally and I have a young family, and we try to stay grounded in the community. We have plays from the West End, but we are not a playhouse – we mix local and national productions, which I see as a massive plus and strength.”

The new spring / summer programme includes West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong, as well as ground-breaking dance show Balletboyz - co-founded in 2000 by ex-Royal Ballet dancers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. But even after eight years, Derek admitted he felt a degree of apprehension about how the shows he has chosen will go down.

“You never quite know,” he said. “It’s always a surprise. I saw Luisa Olielam’s show - What Would Beyonce Do? - which was quite metropolitan and new. I saw her on the tv and it was such a brilliant show. She is a true voice of the generation coming up – very, very open about her life experience – which we are helping to develop at the arts centre. That was really exciting.”

Inclusivity is another key project for the theatre.

“We want to be the theatre for everybody in Swindon. We have performances with sign language and subtitles. We have our Memory Café once a month for people with dementia and their carers; we have nostalgia films at the arts centre – which help people plug into a moment, triggered by a happy memory,” he said.

The 2017 pantomime, starring Adam Woodyatt, who will make a return to this year’s panto Aladdin, introduced its first ever relaxed performance, which toned down loud noises, kept the lights up and the doors open.

“It was brilliant! We had a packed house,” Derek said. “We had a real mix of people too – with three schools, two of which were mainstream schools. It was not an audience full of people with disabilities, but a very mixed range and that was the nicest surprise for our team – it was properly inclusive. We had members of the audience who had never sat through a two-hour performance, and it was joyful. We will do more in the future.”

He said they were beginning to see the third generation coming to a Wyvern pantomime, with it becoming a Christmas tradition for many.

“It’s a huge privilege for us – that’s the over-riding emotion. We had 30 thousand people choosing to spend their time here.”

And Derek paid tribute to the level of creativity and participation in the cultural life of the town: “Participation is through the roof,” he said. “A lot of things are being done.”

Looking further into the future, Derek hoped Swindon would have a new theatre to replace the Wyvern – though this could be years down the line.

“We need a new theatre. This one opened in September 1971 and it is 47 years old. When it was built, I don’t think they would have envisaged that it would still be the main theatre after this time.

“Ideally we would have a new building with a variety of performance spaces within it. It would help the town centre survive and thrive, and it would enable us to take the larger productions.”

Derek speculated that if the design of a new building was right, and along with the new gallery and museum it would be a huge fillip for the town centre and would bring in other cultural developments. It’s an aspiration for everyone who cares about Swindon,” he said.

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