Interview with Bill Hugonin, who had a vision of converting a former cinema in Alnwick into a community arts centre and his views on the new plans for Alnwick Playhouse.
Twin passions for the arts and the community drove Bill Hugonin, who served as agent for three Dukes of Northumberland over 30 years’ service, to fulfill his dream of opening a theatre in the heart of Alnwick.
It was his self-confessed ‘crazy idea’ in the early 1980s to convert a former 700-seat cinema in a building left empty and decaying in the centre of town that was the seed that eventually germinated, growing slowly before flourishing into a splendid community arts centre, arguably the finest in Northumberland.
The Playhouse is much adored and has been well used by countless local groups over the years since it opened in 1990.
But with admirable grace and modesty, Bill, who will be 92 at the beginning of August, refuses to take credit for the project, preferring to praise the team around him and the community it has served so well.
“There was not a floor in that part of the building – it was a crazy idea. But I knew if the community were behind it, then it would succeed,” he said.
“When the Playhouse became empty [in 1979], people talked about it becoming a furniture store and about it being knocked down, which I thought would be a great pity.”
At the time, through work, Bill was very involved with Alf Groome, chief executive of Alnwick District Council.
“He was the person who enabled the Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC) to buy the Playhouse. But it was very soon obvious that it was going to be far too big for their purposes and they only really wanted the ground floor for their rehearsals and performances.”
Would anybody else take the rest of it? Would it be possible for a group of people to do that? These were the question swimming around in Bill’s mind. So, from around 1982, he started to assemble a group of like-minded movers and shakers in the area.
“I started talking to Alf because there was absolutely no point until the district council were on our side,” said Bill.
“I told him there would have to be a charitable trust as there would be a lot of money to find. He asked me if I would be its first chairman. I said to myself that unless I say yes at once, I would say I was too busy and I couldn’t do it. So I said yes and I did it.”
And so the curtain was raised on the project to convert the Alnwick Playhouse into a community arts centre.
“We met as a steering committee every month for six to nine months. They were all very keen on the idea and we all became trustees of the trust.”
A feasibility study was commissioned, which found around £300,000 was required, which trustees decided to raise in two lots by doing the development in phases.
It was a daunting prospect and progress was slow.
“If there was a turning point, it was at a meeting I was responsible for in the White Swan to discuss the future of the Playhouse – a lot of people turned up,” said Bill.
“I always remember [Councillor] Hugh Phillipson saying: ‘Of course we’ve got to do it, we can’t not do it.’
“I then began to feel that if we couldn’t raise all this money, we’re going to let all these people down. So it then became about the huge importance of relationships with people and gradually over the years, we raised the money.”
Those first years were absolutely crucial and Steve Cowton became the venue’s first manager after his work with the NTC and the Playhouse Trust.
Bill said: “His appointment was absolutely critical and he did the most marvellous job, because he knew the building from the start and, because he was born and bred in Alnwick, he understood the community that we were trying to attract.
“He remained manager for the first 15 years and my debt to him was amazing.”
Bill also praised the other members of staff in those early days, who worked tirelessly and ‘beyond the call of duty’.
“What pleased me tremendously was that young people were very excited to perform in a theatre and I think that caught on in a big way,” he said.
“When some of them, having cut their teeth in the Playhouse, went on and were successful elsewhere, it was because of the Playhouse that they became interested at all.”
The theatre became such an important attraction, a magnet for performers, amateur and professional, the community and tourists alike.
“People come from such a long way away and that is why it is so important now,” said Bill.
“I say to people why do you come to live in Alnwick, and they often say the Playhouse was a major reason for moving here.”
Now the Playhouse is due to undergo another major redevelopment, with Northumberland County Council buying the building and spending £2.5million to repair, refurbish and create a community hub, including library, tourist information and customer services.
The Playhouse Trust must raise a further £800,000 to upgrade its facilities, including the seating in the auditorium.
The theatre’s trustees concluded that the offer from the county council – to buy the building and then grant a new 50-year lease to the trust to enable it to continue to operate the theatre, studio, bar and an expanded café – was by far the best solution to ensure it is fit for purpose now and for future generations.
Bill said: “I am very keen that the community, which was the point of the whole thing from the beginning, should feel part of the refurbishment. We want them to be involved and be told what we are doing.
“The vital thing is that we maintain our identity.
“I don’t think the county council would have ever consented to buy the building from the theatre company unless it was essential. As the arts become more and more of a struggle financially and politically, then the Playhouse itself becomes more and more important.
“If you ask me whether I think it will work, I would say I am very happy about the library. I think that is a perfectly correct use of the arts – books, literature.
“When it comes to customer services I am not so sure, but it will work provided everybody wants it to work – it’s as simple as that.
“By having a better lift and access to the street and having a larger kitchen – that is all very, very good, as long as the building maintains its character as the Playhouse, as a theatre.
“From the word go, I have emphasised the importance of the staff in the Playhouse, that they should be welcoming, they should be committed to it and believe in it.
“You have to be passionate about it. This is a new phase and establishing a new phase and getting it right will work because the staff want it to work and I am very grateful to the staff for being prepared to think afresh.
“It’s another phase in the Playhouse’s history, but as a community asset, this is 100 per cent important.”
It has been a huge effort within the community, not just to build the Playhouse but to keep it going.
“I owe so much to so many people, but I am very pleased that this crazy idea that I had has worked. My contribution to the community in this particular way does give me immense pleasure.”
But the current Playhouse manager Jo Potts summed it up when she said: “I am very proud of Bill and the community is proud of him.
“When you think he started all this off with a crazy idea, it fills me with pride.
“When you work with other venues around the country you find it usually takes someone at the core who is really passionate to get an idea off the ground.”