In Conversation with… Toby Bridges (Founder Member and Chair of The Exchange North Tyneside)

14 December 2021

Situated on Howard Street in the historic heart of North Shields, The Exchange Theatre is a cultural venue and registered charity, supporting the Arts with a regular and varied programme of live music, theatre performances, art exhibitions, open mic events, comedy shows and festivals, along with classes and workshops.

We recently spoke with Toby Bridges, a Founder Member and Chair of The Exchange, about how he came to be involved with the space, some of the challenges the charity has faced so far (not least a pandemic), the value of volunteering across sectors, and how supporting creative industries alongside STEM subjects will develop the skills needed for the workforce of the future.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

My official day job is as chairman of a fourth-generation family business supply chain management company called The NBT Group based in Newcastle. I’m also a Business Growth Board member at the North East LEP. Outside of those, I founded and chair a theatre that’s based in North Shields called The Exchange. It’s a community-based theatre so we do amateur, semi-pro and pro work; a good wide range, but what we’re really interested in is how can we help the community to engage in theatre better.

I’d been involved with Day8 Productions, a not-for-profit theatre company in North Tyneside, for several years before we took over The Exchange in 2017. We then morphed from being a theatre company into a production house. All sorts of people come and use the space and we’re determined to create an atmosphere that allows people from any background, young or old, to get involved in the Arts and become more motivated and more engaged in life because of that. We’re aiming to use the Arts to make the world a little bit better in our corner.

Could you expand further on your involvement with The Exchange?

In 2009, I decided I wanted to run a theatre and began a lengthy bid for the management of the council-run Playhouse in Whitley Bay. I pitched to run the theatre as a community place for people who wanted to get involved in it. For example, if you wanted to try your hand at becoming an actor, you could ask at the theatre and be pointed in the right direction. I lost out on that bidding process to SMG, now ASM Global, who run the Utilita Arena, but what emerged out of it was an idea of creating a better way for people to access multi-format theatre; so that rather than having lots and lots of disparate companies, you could create a home that provides for everyone.

I also learnt that the plan, at that stage, was probably too big. To make a Playhouse work you would have to fill 600 or so seats regularly and it was almost a little bit too “glitzy” initially for what we needed. We wanted to be the bit in between a Playhouse size venue and say, squeezing 10 people into a room in a pub to watch a performance. I wanted people to be able to walk through the door undaunted, not feeling excluded and uncomfortable, or viewing the theatre as a place reserved for others, and what we have now at The Exchange probably fits that bill very nicely.

I’ve always thought that a community should have access to a theatre. On a theatre stage, and in the Arts more generally, there needn’t be a structure to involvement that limits anyone. That’s what I wanted The Exchange to be about: to cater for everybody and to give somebody a place to go when maybe there’s nowhere else.

What have been the biggest challenges?

When we started it, we had all the usual problems with cash flow and how to go about growing the business. Cash flow is always going to be hard in any start-up business, and particularly in the Arts. We’ve got a really good team who have put the hours in and worked hard to get it to where it is. Now we’re at that point where we want to get into the next phase of our growth; to expand and explore how we do that. If we’re being honest, it’s still not as well known a venue as it could be and that’s a journey we’re still working hard on, trying to get the message out there.

We’ve lit the place up and we’ve brought people to it. Before we took over the venue, it had failed as a theatre and as 5 or 6 restaurants. So, we inherited a building that’s not known for theatre particularly – but like I say, we had a great team that put the effort in and took it to where it was before the pandemic hit. Then, as you know, the doors shut on everyone, and it was an incredibly difficult and emotional time for us all. By that point, we had around 10 to 12 people employed, through bar work and the theatre functions, and suddenly we couldn’t employ them. There seemed very little light at the end of the tunnel, but the core team really hung together and managed to come through it, and I think we’re probably much stronger off the back of it. The programme was put in place quite quickly again through the team working tirelessly… maybe too tirelessly at times! And as I continually reminded myself throughout it all, Shakespeare himself faced similar closures throughout his life, and he seemed to come through it all ok in the end!

From your connections/work with the Local Enterprise Partnership a lot of funding gets targeted to STEM subjects and skills – what is your experience as an employer?

Obviously, there’s a big focus on STEM now and that’s great, but my concern in the world is that if we neglect the Arts, we miss out on something else that’s vitally important. What we really need is people thinking creatively about where we want to go. As the world starts to automate a lot of business, what you need is more people thinking differently – that’s what Arts and Culture can bring. I’m not saying that people don’t think creatively in STEM, of course they do, but you’ve got to encourage people that you can’t just learn by rote – you’ve got to find other ways to look at the world around us.

I think the decrease in emphasis on the Arts in schools, particularly around drama, painting, or any of the wider art subjects, will cause a real problem in the future. If they’re not going to promote it in schools, then places like The Exchange need to be supported to fill this gap – whether that’s trust funding, government or council support – otherwise I think we will lose a generation of talent.

Could you comment on the value to organisations of professionals volunteering their skills in different settings?

It’s important that companies and people that have capacity to do it go out and see how other organisations work. It can only do good for their ability to do their own job better.

I gain a lot from when I watch a piece of theatre at The Exchange – to see that as a product compared to the product that I sell every day. It just gives you a different feeling – to watch that achievement and know that you’ve helped the team get there. It’s entirely different to the support that my team at The NBT Group need from me. It gives you the mind space to see other challenges and respond creatively. It’s like everything in life: the more people can get involved, perhaps in something outside of their comfort zones, and the more ideas or questions from different standpoints we bring to the party, the better.

You work with economic development across the region – what part do you see culture playing in the future?

We need local councils and central government to not forget the importance of Arts and Culture. Not only what they can bring directly to the economy as a multi-billion-pound turnover business sector in the UK, but what they can also bring to so many people, in terms of expanding minds and enriching lives.

I’ve always said that encouraging that nervous young person to stand on a stage and read out a poem in front of their family and friends can be hugely empowering for them. They might not necessarily go on to star on the West End stage, but the confidence they gain from it could mean that they grow up to become a great salesperson for me!

This confidence-building, the ability to think differently or creatively, to give a place to thrive for those who need it, is critical, and if we, as a whole, neglect to support the Arts, for our government not to put adequate focus on it, then I think we potentially lose something that should be a linchpin in our ability to move on over the next 10 years and beyond as individuals, as a region and as a country.

I’ve always thought that a community should have access to a theatre.
Toby Bridges