A look behind the scenes at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal
Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal is the subject of the first in a series of ‘Spotlight Interviews’ with people running or managing businesses around Suffolk. Having spent years developing the Woodfarm brand, it has enabled me to meet some amazing people around the county, many of whom have become good friends. And here’s one of them!
Meet Matthew Abercrombie who is the Theatre Manager of the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal. Despite appearances he’s a really nice bloke! Matthew and I met during one of his previous lives at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket.
What’s your background?
I’ve had a shockingly varied career. Following a decidedly undistinguished school career, I ran adventure playgrounds in West London for four years, moving to Richmond Theatre in Surrey when I ran out of steam. I made resident Stage Manager, went to The Everyman in Liverpool for a while, returned to Richmond and moved from there to The Royal Albert Hall and from there to a few years with rigging companies working on pop videos, rock touring, West End theatre and corporate events. I then spent some 25 years freelancing around the events industry launching cars, buildings and the odd tunnel, doing large, corporate events and parties and managing stage and arena builds. Four years ago I landed the General Manager’s post at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket and, this time last year, I took up the newly created role of Theatre Manager at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal.
There’s something askew in a career that gets me my first salaried job in 30-odd years in the year I turn 60!
What made you decide to do this?
Completely unqualified for anything serious.
What would you say your (MAIN?) role is?
As Theatre Manager, I’m responsible for all activities Front of House. Under my wing I have an FoH & Events Manager who organises external hires, parties, weddings, the rota-ing of staff and ordering of sweets, ice-cream etc. Also reporting to me are the bar staff and all the volunteer stewards.
I am in constant communication with the National Trust, scheduling maintenance, decorating and all the activities involved in keeping a 200-year-old building in a fit condition for shows, audiences and visitors coming to take part in our regular tours.
I’m also responsible for the safety and security of both the theatre and our patrons.
Much of my time is spent liaising between FoH & the other departments, collating information and ensuring that incoming shows have the smoothest possible time with us.
Customer service is front & centre of my role. Without the support of our audiences, we simply don’t exist.
Is Suffolk a great place to work and if so, why?
The skies, the food, the people and the pace of life. Having spent a great part of my life based in London, even after some 20-odd years in Suffolk, I still relish the peace and the relative lack of hurly-burly.
I moved to Bury earlier this year and I now cycle to work and am thoroughly enjoying living in a small but vibrant town. The downside is that I live 50m from Vinyl Hunter and will, consequently, be bankrupt in the near future.
It’s great to have the broad choice of restaurants, shops and, especially, the market on my doorstep and the sea just up the road.
Landguard Point is one of my favourite haunts. A bacon & egg roll and a happy couple of hours watching the shipping come and go & container cranes dancing their industrial ballet is my, somewhat geeky, idea of winding down.
What do you think makes your business stand out from the crowd?
A unique, beautiful, Grade I listed building that is decidedly not a museum. We have the friendliest staff, an amazingly varied programme and a dedication to furthering the arts in Bury St. Edmunds and wider East Anglia.
What does the future hold for you and the business?
For me? I’m in it for the long haul. 2019 marks our 200th anniversary which is something that we intend to celebrate in style and I’m very keen to play a major role in the events surrounding the birthday.
We will continue to provide top class programming, continue to expand our education and out-reach activities and continue to put ourselves at the forefront of cultural life in Bury St. Edmunds.
Which product (SHOW/ACT?) is your personal favourite and what’s the most popular with your customers at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal?
I love our in-house produced shows, Northanger Abbey & Our Day Out this year and more to come next.
On the quiet, I’m a bit of a fan of the musical, so the local amateurs are favourites of mine. They always put on highly professional shows and draw really good audiences.
The audience favourite has to be pantomime. Beauty & the Beast last year played 76 performances to in excess of 23k people. Those numbers speak for themselves.
What’s been your most embarrassing or most humorous moment in the business?
You’ll have to wait for the memoirs to be published for that. Suffice to say that one of them involves a stage, a bucket of black paint, a lapse of concentration and a very dark, gloomy corner.
Tell us about three other businesses or organisations in Suffolk that you admire and why? (You can leave Woodfarm out!)
Woodfarm Barnges (Note from Carl; He’s the only person too lazy to say Barns & Barges!) have my continued admiration. I have known Carl for some years now and have watched the business grow. It strikes me that it’s a fine example of a Suffolk business, small-ish, grounded and super friendly with an undeniably quality ‘product’.
My three for admiration would be:
Adnams – The brand is amazing. I love the graphic design. We were an Adnams ‘house’ at the John Peel Centre and the arrangement of bottles behind the bar became something of a work of art. Why would I, a tee-totaller, want a beer-branded hoody? Dunno, but I did, and I got one. Must be the brand?
The Mix – An extraordinary youth facility in Stowmarket. The dedication, care and love of their team leaves me in awe. They also have The Cabbages & Kings Café which sells the best homemade cakes and pastries in the county.
Action Medical Research – Not strictly a Suffolk organisation, but they run an annual mini-festival in Mendlesham called Gig in the Garden. It’s a fantastic fundraiser and an opportunity to see more established acts on the main stage and upcoming singers and songwriters on the acoustic stage.
This is Matthew hard at work at Gig in the Garden. I am involved in the event and I can confirm that he doesn’t do this all the time!
Thank you ever so much to Matthew for giving us an insight into his role at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal, as well as his past life! Please do support this amazing venue when you’re in the area and maybe ask if Matthew is around to say hi. Sometimes he can be very pleasant to chat to. Sometimes.
Do check out the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal website here for their calendar of events.