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Ambitious plans to increase the capacity of Eden Court's main auditorium get a boost with £50,000 of Highland Council cash to pay for a feasibility study as chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman announces his departure from the north's top cultural venue

By Scott Maclennan

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The Empire Theatre became the heart of a major relief operation during last year's lockdown.
The Empire Theatre became the heart of a major relief operation during last year's lockdown.

AMBITIOUS proposals to transform Eden Court’s iconic theatre space have moved a step closer to becoming reality with the provision of essential funding towards a feasibility study.

Highland Council is to provide £50,000 towards a feasibility study as the first step along the road to realising the £15 million transformation of the Empire Theatre.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) will also make a contribution, with the rest of the £150,000 paid for by the theatre itself.

Much-loved as a performance space the Empire Theatre is dear to the hearts of many Highland theatre-goers, not least as the base for Eden Court’s annual pantomime – though it was most recently pressed into service as a relief centre during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Largely untouched since it first opened in 1976, it is in desperate need of refurbishment – with management also hoping that work to increase the number of theatre-goers that can be accommodated at any one time would make the Highlands’ biggest arts space a more attractive financial proposition to producers of top touring shows.

Chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman believes the transformation would “help us deliver our mission to bring the world to the Highlands and take the Highlands to the world.”

While the Empire Theatre has the second-largest stage in Scotland, it currently has just 869 seats, which pales next to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal’s, 1541, or the Edinburgh Playhouse’s 3059.

Currently Eden Court cannot sell enough tickets to make it financially viable for major shows to make the trip north.

The investment from the local authority for the feasibility study – critical for sharing with any potential funders – comes on top of the £300,000 it already gives Eden Court annually.

Mr Mackenzie-Blackman said: “Eden Court has been working for two years on plans to imagine its future and invest in its assets.

“This new support from the Highland Council will enable us to further develop our plans.

“Our aim is to complete these works through 2021 and, during this time, start a conversation with our audiences and the wider community about how Eden Court’s buildings could develop to further help us deliver our mission to bring the world to the Highlands and take the Highlands to the world.”

At a council meeting where the funding injection was agreed councillors made clear that transformation of the Empire Theatre would bring potential benefits beyond just Eden Court itself, or Inverness.

Tain councillor Derek Louden said: “I see Eden Court very much as a hub for arts activities all across the Highlands and the activity they’ve undertaken, including supporting a cinema in Cromarty, although it’s a very small development, is actually something that could be replicated elsewhere.

“We’re giving them this money, we’re giving them support, and perhaps they can help us deliver a much wider range of provision right across the Highlands.”

Eden Court chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman is set to leave the venue in December.
Eden Court chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman is set to leave the venue in December.

Chief Executive's Departure

Eden Court chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman is to leave the job after just over three years in charge of the Highlands’ biggest arts space.

It was announced yesterday that he will step down in December, to make a return to his hometown to take up the reins at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

Much of his time in charge at Eden Court has been spent steering it through the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

His move to repurpose the venue as a distribution hub for food parcels during lockdown as staff were seconded to man a regional Covid-19 helpline drew praise.

Also helping steady the theatre’s finances earlier this year he was named “one to watch” by The Scotsman and made arts magazine The Stage’s list of 100 most influential people.

The outdoor Under Canvas summer music festival – back in Inverness for a third year, and embarking on a Highland tour for the first time in 2021 as well – has been a particular success.

“It has been an absolute honour to lead Eden Court,” he said.

“Even in the most challenging of circumstances I have been amazed by the skill, resilience and creativity of my exceptional team.

“We have achieved so much, together, and there is much opportunity to still be maximised and developed.”

Chairman of Eden Court’s board, Don Robertson, said: “James has made an outstanding contribution to Eden Court, and he will be sorely missed. However, I recognise that he is leaving for a role that offers unique benefits, both professionally and personally.

“On behalf of the board, and all Eden Court staff, we offer him our sincere thanks for all he has achieved and our best wishes for the future.”

Chief executive of Creative Scotland, Iain Munro, said: “James has brought enormous energy and impressive leadership to bear during his time at Eden Court, including widening its relationship with diverse communities, and taking work out beyond the venue itself.

“The period of the pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges which James has navigated with great sensitivity and resilience and is leaving Eden Court in good shape.

“He will be missed, not just in relation to his impact at Eden Court, but also because of his generous and collegiate contribution to the wider performing arts in Scotland, and we wish him well for the future.”

Councillor Bill Lobban, Highland Council convener said: “On behalf of the Highland Council, I would like to thank James for his work within our communities, and for his engagement with the council during his tenure.

“The pandemic has been a particularly difficult and challenging time for residents and businesses.

“However, it also established a groundbreaking partnership between the council and Eden Court as staff came together to redeploy their key skills and experience to support our resilience response.

“This is a great example of the fantastic partnership working between both of our organisations, and is something I will look forward to continuing with his successor.

“Congratulations to James and we wish you the very best of luck in your new role”.

Related story – Accounts for Eden Court Theatre in Inverness paint a positive picture

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