Concerns have been raised about the future of the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine after the Ulster University withdrew its request for funding from Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.
The news led one councillor to comment ‘the place is down for closure’ and another suggested the move was ‘an interesting one.’
The theatre, which was commissioned by the New University of Ulster (now the Ulster University) as a major project during the 1970s, has seen many Irish, British and international stage, screen and television stars perform in the Riverside.
The likes of James Nesbitt, Alan Cumming, Omid Djalili and Jonny Lee Miller, (star of the movie ‘Trainspotting’) have all taken to the Riverside’s stage.
Not forgetting Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson who were all unknown but regular visitors, having just graduated from the Cambridge Footlights and iconic British film star Richard Todd.
Members of the Leisure and Development Committee were informed that council officers had received notification from the university on November 4 confirming withdrawal of their request for funding.
Yet at October’s meeting of the committee a report had been brought requesting funding to support the Riverside Theatre to the sum of £107,500 through a service contract and on the basis of a submission received from the Ulster University.
At the time the Committee agreed to defer its decision subject to a workshop to discuss the proposal and the University’s longer term estates strategy for the theatre.
At November’s meeting on Tuesday the report brought before members noted ‘The University has confirmed that there is work being undertaken to ensure the on-campus theatre remains an asset for delivering academic excellence and a rich student learning experience.
Having written to Vice Chancellor Professor Bartholomew requesting an urgent meeting, Alliance Alderman Yvonne Boyle spoke of her ‘concern’ saying it was a ‘critical time’ for the Riverside.
‘Furthermore, staff have been informed that the independent review commissioned by the University is due to conclude by the end of January 2022 and will inform the theatre’s future and potential as a venue.’
Party colleague Councillor Chris McCaw suggested there had been a ‘breakdown in communication’ before proposing the setting up a group of councillors to liaise directly with the university regarding the future of the Riverside Theatre.
DUP Councillor Aaron Callan said the situation was ‘one the university has created themselves’, adding: “I feel the university has gone down a certain route with how it communicates with council and there is a certain direction of travel the university is going down.”
In terms of liaising with the university the Mayor, UUP Councillor Richard Holmes suggested ‘just writing to them’ rather than setting up a group with councillors.
Council officer Julie Walsh explained to members: “I was contacted by the university to say they would pass up on the opportunity for funding subject to their review which they are hoping to have finished in January.”
“It was news to us,” Ms Walsh added. “We were working on the basis of last month’s report and they didn’t give any indication then.”
DUP Alderman George Duddy described it as ‘an interesting one.’
He said: “Last month we asked them to come to present and then they pull their request for funding and as we have heard it has come as a total surprise to staff who have been engaging with the university for years.
“We seem to have forgotten the key to this. The very facility we are funding is closed and if it hadn’t been brought to our attention last month, I wonder would the request have been withdrawn at this stage to allow them to carry out their own investigation.”
PUP Councillor Russell Watton said he ‘despaired about what is happening’.
“It feels like there is an arrogance and an elitism, they just don’t seem to want to communicate,” he said. “You talk about communication, but that’s a two way process but you need someone to talk to you in the first place.
“The place is down for closure and it looks to be travelling down the same route a lot of things are down there, except nobody will say it.
“There’s been a helluva lot of money given to that place over the years right from Coleraine legacy days.
“I’m sorry I despair about what’s happening to that place, they don’t seem to care and they don’t have the manners to come here and explain.”
DUP Councillor Adrian McQuillan asked how much money has been awarded to the Riverside Theatre over the years to which Ms Walsh replied: “It used to be in Coleraine Borough Council’s time they were receiving £115k a year and since the formation of Causeway Coast and Glens in 2015 it’s been £107.5k a year.”
Committee members voted 11 for, four against and one abstention to do nothing further until after the university completes their review in January 2022.
When contacted an Ulster University spokesperson said: “The University has confirmed to the Council that it has decided not to proceed with the programme funding proposal to Council for this year but will continue to liaise with the Council’s Leisure and Development team on specific development opportunities as they arise.
“The independent review commissioned by the University is due to conclude early in 2022 and will inform the theatre’s sustainable future and full potential as a venue to maximise the on-campus theatre as an asset for delivering academic excellence and a rich student learning experience. The Riverside will also maintain its opportunities for young people, youth outreach and its schools’ programme.
“We are committed to the theatre remaining a valued and vibrant arts and cultural destination for the local area, providing a diverse programme that will continue to work with local, regional, national artists and production companies on a case-by-case basis and look forward to continuing to work with the Council on our many shared interests and opportunities in the region, including arts and cultural activity.”