How pandemic almost robbed Edinburgh of treasured King's Theatre forever
"A baptism of fire" is how Fiona Gibson describes her first months at Capital Theatres. As the new Chief Executive took up her post, the pandemic hit, leaving her facing the very real possibility of having to bring the curtain down on Edinburgh’s King's Theatre forever.
Let us know what you think and join the conversation at the bottom of this article
What had been her dream job suddenly turned into a nightmare fight for the survival of the venue's entrusted to her care.
"When I accepted the position it was going to be my dream job. We had three wonderful businesses, three resilient theatres in the King’s, Festival and Studio... and then on day one you have to put everyone on furlough and start working hard on achieving emergency funding.”
She admits, “There were some pretty tough moments. Around summer of 2020 everything was pretty dark, we had no route to emergency funding as we are not a regularly funded organisation through Creative Scotland, and we weren't being heard.
One real option facing Gibson as the crisis continued, was having to close the King's, affectionately know to generations of city theatre-goers as the Old Lady of Leven Street, permanently.
She explains, “The darkest moments were probably just before Christmas 2020 when the maximum sum of money we could receive was £250,000 - for an organisation of our scale that wasn't going to go very far.
"We had to launch a major campaign to a: get people to listen and understand that we are a charity, and b: to find the routes to emergency funding. We hit some pretty dark times at the end of 2020, and yes there were moments we thought, ‘Are we going to be able to open the doors of the King's ever again?’”
At the time, Capital Theatre Trust's lease of the historic King's was due to expire in July 2023.
"Had we closed the King's, it would have been touch and go whether we could have ever opened it again. For us to be able to look after that building, with all the inherent issues we've got there, which is the reason we're about to do the redevelopment, would not have been sustainable. We would have had to hand it back to the City of Edinburgh Council."
That was a very real option facing Gibson at the end of last year, just as emergency funding was finally sanctioned by the Scottish Government. It changed everything.
"If you couple the situation facing us with the Scottish Government stepping in with six and a half million pounds for the King's capital project, that money was an absolute godsend. It meant we could keep all our staff and had a viable option to keep going."
Another two and a half million funding from sources such as Creative Scotland, trust, foundations, Scottish Government, public crowdfunding and individual patrons added some additional security.
Now in a position to continue with the redevelopment of the King’s, which is now a year behind schedule, the venue is set to close for two years to allow the work to be done in September 2022, things are looking much brighter, but there is still another three million to find.
"We have about three million still to raise out of the 25 we need and we will be thrilled to have the public help us get over that line,” says Gibson.
“It's a big sum of money and we're waiting to hear from the National Lottery Heritage Fund at the end of this month - that would be half of that three million. We will also do some public crowdfunding again, as we did during the pandemic, former Chief Executive Duncan Hendry is running a marathon for us so we hope many people will sponsor him, and we may do some other fundraising shows.
"We are introducing some contact-less donation points at both the King’s and Festival theatres.”
The result of that funding will be seen by audiences in 2024, and Gibson promises, “We want to retain the heritage and preserve the wonderful lustre that is the King's Theatre so it will still be the place people love and cherish now.
"We are putting a cafe in on the ground floor where people can congregate, we want the place to be animated and open by day. It will be a much more welcoming and accessible place that everybody can feel is their theatre. The King's, for me, is the community jewel in the crown.”
That’s all in the future, but as she reflects on her first year and a half in the job, Gibson admits, “It was definitely a baptism of fire but the thing that made the difference was the Festival Theatre family.
"The staff here are so passionate and dedicated, their life is here, and they embraced me and really made me feel at home even though I was on Zoom, literally at home."
Together, they got through the "dark times” but the pandemic journey isn't over yet.
She says, “Although it was really tough and pretty stressful, we feel like we're coming through the other side. We're running on a tightrope all the time but we got together and found solutions. I feel very proud that we pulled together and we are still here, although there’s constant trepidation just now, because we're not done yet. It's still out there and we still have this winter to get through."