Pillars, pews and performers

St Mary's church in the snow at Christmas 2018

Prior to Christmas I wrote about the logistics involved in hosting concerts on the outdoor Kino stage for the Rye Jazz & Blues Festival. Whilst all this was going on, and at the same time, the team of volunteers had to be split as there were also two concerts a day to set up and run at St Mary’s church during the August bank holiday weekend.

St Mary’s church was not built as a concert venue but choices are very limited in Rye if you want to stage internationally acclaimed artists in an iconic setting and building, so until a more suitable venue presents itself, the concerts will continue to be staged there. Space will always be limited within the church but artists love performing there and for most ticket holders the acoustics are considered ideal, the lighting display is nothing short of spectacular.

Months before the concerts are announced negotiations will have been in full swing between Ian Bowden (Festival Director) and various artists, their agents and management. St Mary’s church has a very limited capacity in terms of audience numbers who can be seated, many stand during the live performances which is reflected in the ticket prices and those seats with restricted views are also discounted. No artist is cheap, the larger the number of performers the higher the ticket price has to be to make it possible and with a limited capacity within the church, ticket prices can often be comparable to London venues. The difference being St Mary’s offers that intimacy which many love.

Once contracts with the artists have been signed, both ‘sides’ are committed as they are legally binding. The marketing plan kicks in, tickets go on sale and all things being equal the performers will invariably play to a full house on the night. The vestry of the church is converted into artist(s) dressing rooms where they, and their entourage, are all fed, watered and generally looked after very well. A pre-agreed rider confirms what they want to eat and drink, details regarding hotel accommodation, parking, timings etc. will all be within the binding contract.

Once the artists arrive, the soundcheck takes place, the church is closed to the public at this point whilst at the same time the furniture (pews, displays, etc., etc.) are rearranged, the staging and lighting having been installed the day before.

Assuming the soundcheck is on time and is not delayed due to unforeseen circumstances (flights, roadworks, weather conditions etc.) then the attention is shifted to the main doors where early arrivals start queuing outside for the best seats.

St Mary’s is a place of worship let us not forget, there are no covered areas outside if the weather is unkind, and for those waiting for the doors to open at 7:30pm and having got there at 6:30pm, if they are not prepared for all eventualities they may well get wet, cold or both!

To limit their discomfort, marshals wander up and down the queue making sure and checking the tickets so when the doors actually open they just walk in and are shown to their seats/standing areas quickly and efficiently by a small army of volunteer ushers. Once in they can go to the fully licensed bar which is also available during the interval.

Organising the seating and standing areas is not without it’s challenges, pews are not meant to be sat on for long periods, they are hard, upright and close together but seasoned concert goers often come ‘armed’ with their own cushions which make life more comfortable. The pillars holding the building up were there first so additional seating and standing areas have to be thought through very carefully to make sure that wherever possible, views of the concert are not compromised.

Superb artists, spectacular lighting display and great acoustics are an ideal mix for a memorable concert.

There are no public loos in the church, facilities are kindly provided by the Kino and until recently, The George Hotel, both only a short stroll from the church but something which has to be managed carefully over the concert series. Bag checks are carried out before entry to the church. After the concerts have finished and the audience has gone home, the big clear up can begin.

As well as clearing up the empties after each performance the seating has to be rearranged (particularly if the church is being used for a service) and stacked neatly away, to be brought out again in time for the next concert. Artists’ cars have to be parked in a very limited area at the rear of the church, their equipment needs to be brought in and out so their keys are often held by ‘the ladies in the kitchen’ who do an amazing behind the scenes job of keeping everyone happy, fed and watered.

After the last concert the staging, lighting and all equipment has to be removed which often runs into the early hours but if the church needs to function as a church the next day it gets done regardless, any finishing touches will wait until the following day. Chairs are returned, pews replaced where they first were and anything which had to be moved is moved back and left as it was found.

Despite all the challenges faced with putting on concerts at St Mary’s church I cannot honestly name one artist who hasn’t enjoyed performing there, hand on heart, most have waxed lyrical about their experience, shared their enthusiasm via social media and many have returned to perform again, willingly and eager to repeat the experience.

With many churches falling into decay or insignificance due to lack of use, apathy or lack of funding isn’t it fantastic that St Mary’s attracts some of the best performing artists available? Without the hard work and dedication of all the team involved in the Rye Jazz & Blues Festival it could be a different story, but the combination of a centrally located iconic venue, top quality artists and the help of volunteers and support of those who come to the concerts, St Mary’s church will continue to prosper, not only as a place of worship but with the added benefit of bringing music to our ears.

Image Credits: K. Bird , Tony Ham .


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