In this age of broadcast performances and live streaming, shows from venues like the National are increasingly accessible to people across the UK. However, the downside is the possibility of audiences swapping their local theatre for a night of big names and big budgets online or at the cinema. Is the regional arts centre under serious threat?
Thankfully, not in south-east London's Deptford, which is blessed with a wonderfully robust example of local excellence. If regional venues are to survive these turbulent times, they need to balance historic roots with new ideas, and engage varied audiences while offering valuable service to their local community. Those seeking inspiration should look no further than the Albany.
This diverse performing arts centre celebrated 30 years in its current site in 2012, but has 19th-century origins as the Albany Empire, damaged by fire in the 1970s. Rising from the ashes is a space committed to fostering creativity and social responsibility – 50% of its funding comes from the Borough of Lewisham and the Arts Council, so there's a concerted effort to reflect the area's cultural mix.
Good news for audiences is the sheer variety on offer, with a large main house (300 seated, 500 standing) and two studios presenting theatre, music, comedy, spoken word, circus and fun family shows. You can catch ground-breaking Albany-commissioned new work here – at a reasonable price – before it transfers to central London or tours, like poet Kate Tempest's Brand New Ancients, currently sold out at the Royal Court and coming home to the Albany in March 2014.
It's a great place for young people to engage with drama and music through UNCOVER, its learning programme for 13 to 19 year-olds, and at the other end of the spectrum, over-60s artist-led day club Meet Me at the Albany provides everything from singing and sewing to circus and photography, plus a tasty lunch, for only £6. Visitors of any age can get a budget-friendly meal in the café and enjoy Café Book Swap – reading material donated by staff and residents.
Arty foodies also have the mouth-watering Café Culture project, championing sustainability and cuisine from different cultures. Yam Yam festivals (February-March 2014) explore the relationship between art and food with delicious shows like Only Wolves and Lions (artist Leo Kay guides you in cooking and sharing a meal) and Come Rhyme with Me (spoken word, with nosh). It's the only time the words "audience participation" haven't filled me with dread.
Another, more quirky example of the venue's commitment to sustainability is their allotments – with resident free-range chickens. It's really part-theatre, part-petting zoo.
The Albany also manages nearby Deptford Lounge and Canada Water Culture Space, masterminding a creative programme for both and illustrating the vital role of libraries in the community – another aspect of regional life under threat and another practical solution.
So pop along this winter and check out an Albany show or, in the spirit of the season, try the Chill Pill Christmas Special, a night of spoken word headlined by Dizraeli and Downlow, plus DJ and dancing till late, on 19th December. It's the season to be jolly – and maybe a little bit adventurous, too.