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Public on board with 92-seat Cutty Sark theatre

As the historic British clipper ship adds a performing arts space to its lower hold, PSNEurope speaks to Cutty Sark Studio Theatre programmer Yvette Griffith

After travelling across the world, sailing under both the British red ensign and the Portuguese flag and visiting every major port in the world, the Cutty Sark, the last surviving tea clipper, was transferred to a permanent drydock at Greenwich, south-east London, and opened to public display.

However, after being badly damaged by fire in 2007, the British vessel was reopened in 2012 with the addition of the eclectic, 92-seat Cutty Sark Studio Theatre, which provides a platform for a variety of performing arts. The Studio Theatre programmer, Yvette Griffith, explains: “I think the restoration gave [the trustees of the Cutty Sark] an opportunity to think about the ship’s uses, but I do think it is something that would have happened [anyway]. I’m not sure it would have happened at the same time or pace, but I definitely think it’s something that would have happened.”

The theatre (pictured right) is a versatile space which can be transformed according to the necessities of each performance. The audio equipment includes two Audio-Technica ATW r2100a UHF radio receivers, two Audio-Technica radio transmitters and a Monacor img Stage Line mpx-622/sw four-channel stereo audio mixer, which has two channels reserved for the UHF receivers (leaving two spare phono inputs). Griffith notes that the equipment was “appropriate for the space [and] within our budget” and says that the Cutty Sark Trust “also took the advice of industry experts”. The storage of the equipment is “quite ingenious”, according to Griffith, as the ship stores the equipment in the tea chests: “it is the exhibition during the day, but some of the tea chests act as cupboards.”

During the day, the lower hold contains displays of artefacts relating to the ship’s history – yet in the evening, the central section of the ship is open to an assortment of audiences. “It is completely unsubsidised, so the ticket income has to cover all our operational costs and any artist fees – so it is always our aspiration to sell every ticket,” says Griffith. “People just think it’s a really good idea and love the intimacy of the space… Part of what we have tried to achieve with this theatre space physically and visually is that you always know that you’re on a ship. The back wall is the ship: we don’t have a backdrop or anything like that – we actually make sure you can see the wood and the metal.”

The Cutty Sark is regularly hired out for parties and celebrations – however, prior to the refurbishment the audio was limited to acoustic live music. Griffiths tells PSNEurope that as “it’s such a small intimate space, it doesn’t need to be amplified sometimes,” with the two twin-channel amplifiers and four 50w Visaton WB13 speakers often just used “to get a rounder feel”.

“Although it is a new space, we do like to think that the unusualness of the venue – the theatre in a ship – will always be quirky enough to: A) to pull the artists in and B) to keep the audiences coming in,” concludes Griffith. Upcoming performances include a one-man show by Andy Kershaw, an evening with James Bond and The Avengers actress Diana Rigg and musical performances by Jason Yarde, Anna Noakes and Gabriella Dall’Olio.

(Georgia Butler)