Hundreds pack public meeting on future of King's Lynn's St George's Guildhall
Hundreds of people packed into Lynn’s St George’s Guildhall yesterday to hear campaigners’ vision for the future of the historic venue.
There was a full house at the King Street site on Sunday afternoon for a public meeting called by the Shakespeare’s Guildhall Trust (SGT).
And the group apologised afterwards, because several more people were unable to attend the session because all 340 seats inside the hall were taken.
Trustee Tim FitzHigham said: “The packed hall was a tremendous endorsement of the overwhelming support there is to keep live theatre at the Guildhall.
“We had expected that people would come because of the interest that had been shown, but never dreamed we would be unable to accommodate them all.
“We are only sorry that restrictions on standing at the venue meant that some who came were not able to attend.”
The SGT first set out its ideas last month, warning that the site’s theatre, which is the oldest working theatre in Britain, could be shut for good without urgent action.
Since then, it has held talks with both the site’s owner, the National Trust, and West Norfolk Council, which currently holds the lease for it.
The SGT says it wants to work with existing users and attract newcomers to develop a year-round programme of performances and exhibitions.
Trustee Ivor Rowlands said: “We simply cannot go for weeks on end when nothing happens. People must become used to calling in at the arts centre and seeing regular activities taking place there, meeting friends for a coffee, snack, or a meal with live music being played or a poetry reading being performed.
“We want the Guildhall arts centre to be the place to go whenever you come to Lynn. Central to that will be involving young people - numerous actors and performers began their careers as youngsters on the Guildhall stage.”
The group has said it could cost up to £5 million to ensure the centre has a sustainable future.
But it says it is drawing up a business plan for the centre and is seeking to raise a £60,000 start-up fund to prepare both that plan and a subsequent fundraising campaign.
Mr FitzHigham said the centre could once again "be alive with visitors, workshops, practise studios, art and theatre classes and regular exhibitions" with a combined effort.
He said: “And at the heart of it all would be the Guildhall, open as a working theatre space for amateur and professional groups and touring companies, continuing its long, long history of performance – and its cultural inheritance as the only surviving venue in which Shakespeare performed.
“We cannot accomplish this alone. It is going to need the goodwill of our community and its practical, financial and artistic support.”
The session took place after questions had been raised about the site by both opposition councillors and members of the public during West Norfolk Council's meeting on Thursday evening.
Labour's Gary Howman asked why the council had not sought to use the hall's connection with William Shakespeare to promote it.
Campaigners have cited research from the University of East Anglia suggesting that it is “highly probable” Shakespeare did appear there in 1592.
And Mr Howman said: “It’s quite easy to look up the research. We could use that to promote tourism.”
But deputy leader Elizabeth Nockolds said: “There is no evidence Shakespeare appeared at the Guildhall.
“We promote the whole of King’s Lynn and we’re very proud of our heritage.”
Mrs Nockolds also criticised the site’s owner, the National Trust, for not including the Guildhall in its latest handbook. She said she had contacted them to question its omission.
Earlier, during public questions, she insisted the authority had not made any claims about the significance of the artwork that might be displayed at the centre, as part of its discussions with the anonymous benefactor who came forward last summer.
Previous public statements issued by the council have suggested the developer wanted to create a “prestigious” gallery space there.
She also insisted no-one was being prevented from using the site, but said she could not provide accurate figures for how much money the council had received from activities there over the past year.