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University Extends Lease on Historic Byre Theatre

The University of St Andrews has decided to extend its lease on the Byre Theatre by 15 years, bringing financial stability to the 89-year-old facility built on a cow byre and lauded by Academy Award-winning actor Sir Sean Connery.

The theatre hosts a 216-seat main auditorium, named after Alexander B. Paterson, as well as a 100-seat studio theatre, along with several lounges, bars, and conference and study spaces.

The Byre is a “hub for culture and performing arts,” says the University, and is “recognised as a valued part of the national infrastructure.” It hosts main stage theatre, music, and dance performances along with touring groups, youth theatre, and an annual pantomime performance. In addition, the Byre is the home of the University’s screenwriting and playwriting Masters of Literature program and collaborates with the undergraduate film studies course.

The Byre, which at the time was owned by the Fife Council, faced financial struggles in 2013 that eventually caused job loss and temporary closure.

Councillor David Barratt, Committee Convener, said, “It’s clear that there’s a lot of work gone into this already – it is a very valued asset and hopefully will continue to be over the coming years.”

The next year, the University took over the lease for 25 years, effectively saving the theatre. Along with the lease, the University is offered the option to buy the the- atre for just £1 in 2054, when the lease ends. It is estimated that this buy out would have Fife Council lose out on an estimated £445,000 from the University’s purchase.

The Byre Theatre was built in 1933 by local freelance journalist and playwright Alexander B. Paterson in conjunction with actor Charles Marford and named for the barn the land originally housed. The theatre was demolished in 1969, and remodeled in 1970 for £40,000, modeled on the Mermaid Theatre in London and funded by local authorities and public donations. Paterson’s last goal was to refurbish the Byre yet again, and he created a proposal for renovation before his death in 1989. This was completed post-mortem, and the Byre was refurbished in 2001 for £5.5 million. The renovation was executed by Nicoll Russell Studios of Dundee.

“This is quite simply a spectacularly designed and most welcoming theatre, which houses one of the best small auditoriums I have come across,” said Sean Connery, who portrayed James Bond in seven films from 1962-83. Sean Connery was joined in his activism by a host of locals and supporters worldwide, with a movement titled ‘Save the Byre Theatre’.

Even after its renovation, the theatre struggled to cover its expenses, and the expiry of its Creative Scotland grant in 2011 added to its losses that were estimated at £600,000 per year. The Byre was forced to close in 2013 as the company that owned it was forced into liquidation by six-figure debts.

More than 6,000 people – backed by Connery – signed a petition to call for the Byre to reopen. “The Byre is a wonderful venue and it would be my hope that a way can be found to keep it open,” he said.

Thanks to Connery’s support, the Byre reopened the next year. Now, with the support and investment of the University, the Byre Theatre’s future is once again secure.

Image: Helen Lipsky

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