Letter: Sad end to special era

HORSHAM District Council’s cabinet member for arts, heritage and leisure, Jonathan Chowen has chosen his words very carefully in his defence of the, in my view, tragic and mistaken, decision to axe the Saturday morning Drama Workshops and Drama School Holiday Courses at The Capitol Theatre, but then I suppose that is what we would expect.

However his, not altogether convincing, defence and reasoning, behind the decision, raise several questions.

Because of the success of Children’s Saturday Morning Cinema, which I applaud, this, Mr Chowen says, has led to a plan to develop more children oriented productions. Hang on a minute, but aren’t the Drama Workshops ‘children orientated’, couldn’t they have been included in ‘the plan’ and aren’t they already in existence?

Mr Chowen makes much of stating that whilst initially over 100 used to attend, for the last few years the average attendance has been 30. Why then, couldn’t the Drama Workshops have been helped by the council to increase the attendance levels? Have there ever been any meetings to discuss this?

I suspect sadly not because, perhaps, they are simply not wanted for inclusion in their plan. Although he doesn’t actually say so when talking numbers, Mr Chowen implies that the drop in numbers is linked to a drop in interest, yet what he doesn’t mention, and this could be key, is how little the Drama Workshops have been advertised over the last few years in particular, compared to how much they used to be advertised in the days of high attendances.

Many of the youngsters, who have attended over the last few years, have complained of ‘lack of publicity’ and have resorted themselves to putting up notices in their schools etc. Surely it is the council’s duty to advertise each and every activity at The Capitol equally, particularly if it’s council financed?

Mr Chowen goes on to try to explain the difficulty of holding two and a half hour workshops using several rooms across The Capitol which ‘now compromises current and any new initiatives for developing The Capitol’s Saturday programme’.

Really? Haven’t there always been other activities in The Capitol on Saturday mornings, even in the days when 100 attended? More to the point, has anyone ever spoken to or consulted Renee Martin, the drama tutor, about this, called her in and asked if anything could be adopted to help solve the problem?

I don’t actually know but I very much doubt it. Perhaps another indication of the lack of support and enthusiasm the council, or the majority anyway, actually hold for the workshops.

Mr Chowen recognises ‘the considerable work and commitment’ by Renee Martin ‘over the years’, actually over 27 years Mr Chowen, which is some commitment.

But then soon after that, he announces that leaflets detailing alternative group drama tuition will be issued to the youngsters at the next session. Well if that isn’t an unfortunate and indelicate remark to make, for someone, who thanks to him and his team, has just been made redundant after 27 years, I don’t know what is.

As for the youngsters themselves, they, I’m sure, as well as their parents, are more than aware of what other drama activities are around and the fact is, currently 30 of them have chosen as their preference, to go to the sessions at The Capitol, as many more did before them.

I wonder just how many councillors, including Mr Chowen, have made it part of their duty as a councillor, to bother to go and see for themselves just what these classes are about and what they achieve?

Not many I vouch.

Isn’t that something you do, especially if you are thinking of axing it or are concerned about a drop in numbers? If they had, they would have seen that ‘the considerable work and commitment over the years’ was much, much, more than that.

They would have seen that they weren’t just drama sessions.

They inspired youngsters to believe in themselves, they gave them a strength in character, they built their self-confidence, they gave them self-discipline and stretched their imaginations beyond their own belief.

All things that are invaluable in preparing young people for whatever they choose to do with their future lives. Something that many more will now lose out on.

I, like so many others over the years, was one of the lucky ones, whose good fortune it was, not only to have experienced Renee Martin’s drama classes but also, her wisdom and guidance and sense of fun and the commitment she gave to the youngsters, plus her sheer love of drama that cannot fail to inspire you.

I went on to have a career in the theatre, as others have, but the vast majority and I must add, more sensible ones, who followed ‘proper’ careers, were also able to take all of the same attributes from Renee’s classes, which helped prepare them for whatever they choose to aspire to in life.

What a tragedy then that Horsham’s local council decision-makers have not been able to see or acknowledge that, or have the vision to continue and encourage it to grow. Instead they have come to the conclusion that The Capitol will be better off, after 27 years, without the Drama Workshops, and also the very popular Drama School Holiday Courses.

The end of a very special era, how sad and short sighted is that!

COLIN STEPNEY

The Causeway, Arundel