Theatre group steps in to save West Sussex youth provision

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre - The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Festival Theatre, in December
Chichester Festival Youth Theatre - The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Festival Theatre, in December

Thousands of people have signed a petition opposing cuts to youth theatre provision in the area – despite a decision having already been taken to axe the cash boost.

The future of the West Sussex County Youth Theatre was under scrutiny last week after the county council agreed to slash its annual £116,000 subsidy.

But a partnership between the group and the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre was backed as a preferred option at a County Hall meeting.

The future of the county organisation, which has 620 members and was founded in 1989, was hanging in the balance, but county councillors did not want to bring down the curtain.

Its children and young people’s services select committee was told progress had already been made towards agreement on a partnership, branding it the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre West Sussex.

This option would not require any subsidy from the county council, according to director of learning David Sword, if approved by Cllr Peter Griffiths, cabinet member for education and schools, who makes the final decision. As well as supporting the partnership idea, the select committee agreed to urge Cllr Griffiths to explore additional funding options.

Rupert Rowbotham, the Festival Theatre’s learning and participation director, said its existing youth theatre was very strong, and widely respected. “We are excited by the idea of extending its range,” he said, adding: “This is not a predatory takeover – it’s a partnership proposal.”

James Turnbull, one of the county youth theatre’s directors, who organised a 2,500-signature petition opposing the subsidy cut, said the possible loss of the service had caused a ‘far-reaching level of dismay’. Funding for the service was an investment, improving young people’s lives and often saving them; it was ridiculous to bin a service that achieved so much.

But select committee chairman Cllr Richard Burrett said Mr Turnbull’s comments related to the withdrawal of the subsidy, rather than changes in the way provision was made. The withdrawal had already been agreed as part of the county council budget.

They were considering a report on the decision the cabinet member had to make to ensure something carried forward in the future.

Cllr Chris Oxlade said: “This seems to be just another hit at young people. We should be doing everything we can to give them the skills and confidence they need for later life.”

Cllr Bob Lanzer said the county needed to build on the relationship with the Festival Theatre and try to make this work, while exploring new funding streams.