It may be hard to picture Alistair McGowan, Jonathan Dimbleby and other national stars strolling through the town’s winding lanes to perform in Havant – but they have.
For the Hampshire town may not have been a venue at the top of every performer’s touring hit-list, but The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre is making itself known as one of the most intimate, welcoming and encompassing performance spaces that really punches above its weight.
‘We’re celebrating our 10th year,’ grins Sophie Fullerlove, director and chief executive of The Spring. ‘And everything is only just beginning.’
Previously known as Havant Art Centre and Havant Museum, the two establishments became one in 2009 to prevent them from closure. Today, The Spring is thriving and remains a cultural hub which makes its residents proud.
Sophie, 36, says: ‘The thing that’s really special about The Spring is that we’re an integrated museum and art centre on one site. There are very few places like that.
‘We can use the art side to bring alive the heritage stories of this area and then use the heritage to inspire artistic activities.’
By day, The Spring hosts a variety of workshops, matinee films, dementia-friendly screenings and children’s theatre performances. Yet in the evenings, the nature of the venue changes, welcoming some of the nation’s leading theatrical productions, comedians and bands to the stage.
While the audience sit back and enjoy the show, they may be blissfully unaware that the person who welcomed them through the doors, served them their drink or even helped organise the entire event was one of the 100 volunteers who give up their time for The Spring. Sophie says: ‘We simply couldn’t operate without our volunteers – they contribute about £65,000 of work every year. They’re a really vital resource for us.’
Paul Dolling, from Havant, is one volunteer who gets as much out of the job as he puts in. ‘My job at front of house is the best job in the world because it gives you an opportunity to enjoy the show too,’ he confesses. ‘It’s absolutely fabulous.
‘You can’t imagine how many emotions can be portrayed. It’s so rewarding to see people’s faces light up while they’re watching the stage.’
Paul, 62, explains the rarity of seeing some larger productions, such as Vamos Theatre, on an intimate stage. As most of the staff are volunteers, it enables the venue to book the bigger names. ‘If we were all drawing a salary, that just wouldn’t be possible.’
Valerie Bird, also from Havant, has been volunteering at The Spring since 2002 and later became a trustee. She says: ‘It has been a big part of my life and it has changed hugely. It’s very important to me. I have made a huge amount of friendships but I care about the place a lot.’
Valerie, 80, explains that her love for amateur theatre drew her into the venue before it was The Spring. Now, alongside attending many shows, she also hosts post-show chats and organises the book group. ‘The Spring is hugely important not only for Havant, but for the whole county. ‘We are very fortunate to have something like this – it has gone from strength to strength,’ adds Valerie.
Art and culture is known to make a difference to health and well-being, with 76 per cent of older people saying it’s important in making them feel happy, according to a poll conducted by Arts Council England.
During the past 10 years, The Spring has launched their outreach programme which takes events out of the centre to socially-deprived areas in Hampshire. ‘We recognise that the venue can be hard to get to and people may think they can’t afford to come in so we break down those barriers by taking work out of the building,’ explains Sophie.
A trip to the theatre can create a dent in the bank balance, with some tickets costing upwards of £60. However, Sophie informs me that the highest price The Spring has charged for a ticket is £25. She adds: ‘One thing I’m really proud of is the breadth of people we reach. Everyone is welcome and we try to keep ticket prices to a minimum.’
Therefore it’s no surprise that in 2018 The Spring saw a 12 per cent rise in ticket buyers and 130,000 people through the doors. ‘We have felt it boom. We’re doing more and seeing more people,’ says Sophie.
In April 2018, The Spring became part of The Arts Council’s National Portfolio for the first time which entitled them to £120,000 for the next four years. Alongside this additional funding, The Spring is financed by Havant Borough Council and Hampshire County Council which have always been ‘incredibly supportive’. ‘They recognise the value that we bring to this community,’ smiles Sophie.
Looking forward, everyone at The Spring is hoping to make its 10th year in action a memorable one. Their Open Day Jump In on October 5 officially recognises their anniversary and will ‘show everyone what we’re all about’. Ahead of those celebrations, The Spring is getting ready for a jam-packed summer with an exhibition inspired by 10, a free on-going birthday party throughout the holidays and much more.
Sophie says: ‘We are not this venue – this organisation is much bigger than any of us as individuals. But as staff, we’re just trying to look after it for a while. The Spring belongs to Havant.
‘People are very proud of this organisation. But there’s always more to do to get more people through the doors and show we are here for everybody.’
Go to thespring.co.uk.
Havant’s own historical hub
Alongside its thriving arts and culture programme, The Spring is home to a vast array of historical resources.
Ann Griffiths, from Havant, is a local historian and genealogist who gives up some of her time to research local history and host talks.
‘I have lived in Havant for nearly 50 years,’ says Ann. ‘I’ve been connected with this building for a long time.’
The Spring has historical files from the 1980s onwards, access to censorships from 1841-1911, births, marriages and deaths from 1837- 1983 and parish registers.
Ann has had a lot of success in helping people, from finding a picture of a woman’s mother who she had never seen before, to reuniting siblings after one migrated to Australia as a child.
Ann says: ‘My role is very rewarding and interesting.’