Two groups have so far publicly thrown their hats into the ring to bid for the contract to run the Under Ground Theatre in Eastbourne town centre.
The popular theatre closed suddenly at the end of June when there was a problem with the lease between East Sussex County Council and the Eastbourne Arts Centre Charitable Trust, which had run the venue in the basement of the Central Library for almost three decades.
In the weeks that followed, performers had to find other venues and ticketholders were offered refunds while the county council said it was inviting bids to operate the theatre – which has a lobby, bar, auditorium, stage and dressing rooms – with a closing date of the end of July.
County Hall in Lewes has now extended the deadline until Friday August 17 after receiving ‘a number of expressions of interest’ and to give ‘more time for any organisations interested in running the theatre to get in their application’.
The Eastbourne Arts Centre Charitable Trust, the charity which came up with the name of the Under Ground Theatre, is among those applying to run the 150 seat theatre – and move back into their home of 29 years beneath the library in Grove Road.
The new UGT team says it can meet the remit laid down by the council to offer a broad range of culture and entertainment for all ages, including opportunities for talented and creative musicians.
The UGT’s chair Sue Hutchinson called on fans past and present to join forces and support their application.
“We have a huge amount of experience running great events at the Under Ground Theatre and we would love the chance to keep going for another 29 years,” said Sue.
“Our trustees and committee members are all volunteers, which allows us to keep costs to a minimum, while putting on great shows with broad appeal throughout the community.”
To garner support, the band of volunteers are putting on their free Saturday Morning Music session at the Eastbourne Bandstand tomorrow morning (Saturday August 11) from 10am to noon.
The event will showcase top local band Stray Dogs and encourage attendees to support the group’s application to renew its lease.
Stray Dogs, guitar and vocal marvels Alex Grayson and Garry Wonfor, will be playing some favourite covers and their own songs.
The charity will ask music-lovers to sign a petition which will be sent to East Sussex County Council with its application.
Eastbourne and Willingdon MP Stephen Lloyd has thrown his weight behind the Under Ground Theatre team and said, “The team of volunteers has given great service to this town for nearly three decades.
“They have a dynamic new management structure in place and should be allowed to continue to work their magic.
“I will be urging the audience tomorrow to sign the petition and help the charitable trust to get back where it belongs.”
The music starts at 10am and will finish by 12.15pm.
The other group hoping to win the contract to run the theatre is Performance Initiative Eastbourne, known as PIE.
Eastbourne record producer Dave Izumi and landlady Shoes Simes have joined forces with other creative business people, in a bid to ‘put the town on the music venue map’.
Dave, who is behind Echo Zoo studio in Silverdale Road and has worked with the likes of James Bay, Michael Kiwanuka, The Magic Numbers and Toploader, is joined by Shoes who owns the Eagle and Dew Drop Inn.
They want to create a hub for all types of performance and arts at the venue.
The team, which also includes singer songwriter Dave Ford, says its plan will provide a place for local artists and musicians to showcase their talents as well as a platform for touring bands, theatre production, film, comedy and storytelling.
PIE says it also wants to ensure the Under Ground Theatre is a thriving hub for community groups, giving a space to performers, artists and audiences that currently don’t have facilities in Eastbourne.
Dave, a father-of-two who grew up in Eastbourne and after working with musicians around the world chose to return to the town and set down roots, said, “The aim is to help people nurture their artistic talent and ambition as well as being a place to attract locals and visitors alike, connecting people and combating loneliness by reaching people through music, art and performance.
“When I bring recording artists to Eastbourne, after a few days of being in the town, they realise there is much more to Eastbourne than often portrayed.
‘They invariably fall in love with the place, in fact some have even moved here after working at the studio.
“The one question often asked is, ‘If we want to play here where is the best place?’. I don’t really have an answer for them’.”
Shoes said, “PIE was put together with the sole purpose of re-opening the UGT.
“We believe there should be a total re-think so this theatre can be used to its maximum potential.
“It’s a wonderful space for a group like PIE to do something very exciting, with performance and people at its heart.
“With big changes in Eastbourne town centre, PIE believe it is the perfect time for a rethink on the Under Ground Theatre which could bring a new wave of visitors to the already blossoming area of Little Chelsea, through music and arts tourism.
A spokesperson at East Sussex County Council said, “The council is looking for a theatre group to rent the Under Ground Theatre in Eastbourne Library.
“As part of our new libraries strategy, the council is keen to enhance the role of libraries as cultural spaces within our communities and is seeking to let the theatre, located in the basement of Eastbourne Library, to a group which will work with the local community to run a programme of cultural events.
“Only ‘constituted groups’ may apply and it is necessary to provide their policies for information governance, security, data protection (GDPR), equality and diversity, health and safety and safeguarding.
“While the rent will be discussed upon enquiry, the council is open to proposals which demonstrate a strong commitment to delivering high quality events for local residents of all ages, and so any application will be assessed in terms of the quality, experience and security the group can offer.
“Therefore, we are keen that groups demonstrate their suitability and experience in running a theatre or similar activity.
“The initial term will be for five years, with a break clause at the end of the second year.”