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Jill Cole, Director of Northern Heartlands, writes about why The Witham matters

Written by  Friday, 10 August 2018 11:44

Jill Cole is Director of Northern Heartlands, the Durham Great Place Scheme, where she manages a small team delivering a programme of arts, heritage and cultural activity across south and west Durham.  Prior to this role, she had a freelance career in the arts, managing her own arts management business as well as delivering community arts activities.  She was the Artistic Director of a very successful youth theatre based in the Witham before its re-development, and most recently worked for Arts Council England as a Relationship Manager for Theatre.   Originally from the southeast, Jill made her home in Teesdale in 1990 and brought up her 2 children here.  She has a long history with the Witham as a user, a committee member (prior to re-development), a tenant (she has twice rented office space in the building) and as an audience member. 

What is valuable about The Witham?
The Witham has so much going for it:
• The building itself, with its blend of old and new architecture, pleasant outdoor space and its prime location right in the centre of town on the high street.
• The people who run it.  You can always be sure of a welcoming smile and a friendly face as you walk through the door and that ethos permeates the organisation from the cleaner through to the Executive Director.
• Its varied programme.  There really is something for everyone both in its artistic programme and range of activities on offer.
• Its place in a small rural market town – and in the wider region.  It is the only arts centre of its kind in the area and has a huge potential catchment.

What do you think The Witham could do better in future?
Improve visibility on the high street.  The façade is old-fashioned and its difficult to tell it’s a welcoming arts centre when you pass by on the street because of the narrow front door and high windows.  A lovely heritage feature but not fit for purpose and in fact a barrier to many.

Find ways of ensuring that everyone knows about it.  At the moment there are far too many people at both ends of the social spectrum in the local community who assume it’s ‘not for them’. The regular attenders are those who would attend arts events whenever and wherever they could and they form a loyal customer base.  However, there are just not the numbers needed to fill the venue to capacity on a sufficiently regular basis; they are a small percentage of a small population and cannot be relied upon to sustain.  So audience development must be a key priority for The Witham.

How often do you go to The Witham, and what kinds of events attract you?
I don’t go often enough!  There are always so many things I’d like to see at the Witham, but sadly my limited time means that I just can’t go to everything.  But the Live Screenings have been a life-saver for me.  The National Theatre was what I missed most about leaving London;  to have access to the current repertoire of performances on my doorstep is a dream come true.

Examples of occasions when you have used The Witham:
I’m a sucker for any live theatre, but I particularly like the kind of work that the Witham has been able to programme as a result of its networks such as Highlights and Reach.  Theatre pieces such as Lost Dog’s ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Testosterone’ and Frankie Vah were all examples of really high quality contemporary performance that I would normally only get to see and experience in London or at the Edinburgh Fringe.

How would you describe The Witham?
Inspiring, stimulating, vibrant

Why do you think The Witham is important for a market town like Barnard Castle?
The Witham is a vital facility for the small market town of Barnard Castle and its rural hinterland and is likely to be increasingly so.  With a bleak future for the high street in the long term, we will need to find reasons for people to come together and socialize once shopping becomes entirely the province of the internet. The Witham attracts visitors and also attracts people to come and live in Teesdale and as such is crucial for the local economy.

How would you feel if The Witham were to close?



Read 758 times Last modified on Friday, 10 August 2018 11:59

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