Theatres in Ayrshire ~ 1800 - 2014

Ayr Borderline Theatre (formerly The Darlington Church), North Harbour Street, Ayr

The Darlington Church

This congregation, formerly known as Wallacetown, originated with members of the secession congregation of Tarbolton, resident in and about Ayr, who, on account of distance from their accustomed place of worship, petitioned the Associate Burgher Presbytery of Kilmarnock to be disjoined and formed into a separate congregation.  Their request was granted in 1797. A church was built in 1799, to be replaced by a new church that was opened in 1860.

The building was vacated ca. 1980.

Arts Centre or Theatre?

Converted from a church to a theatre, the building occupies a prominent sitting at the northern section of the New Bridge. . The building was designed by the Glasgow practice of Clarke and Bell.  Clarke, born in Ayr 1809, was draughtsman with William Burn before before entering a long and successful partnership with John Bell.  This architect also designed Ayr Academy in Fort Street (Historic Scotland)

The building was vacated by the congregation when many of the Ayr church united in the late 1970's.  At that time, the Darlington Church, the Sand gate Church and the Cathartic Church were disbanded.  After a prolonged period on the market, the Darlington Church was acquired by Ayr Common Good Fund and converted to a theatre and operational base for Borderline Theatre Company, which moved there from its original premises in Irvine in 1986.

Prior to the arrival of Borderline, the building was used by Ayr Arts Guild as a fundraising venue.  Under the chairmanship of David Crouch, the Guild presented regular Sunday evening concerts in the venue, with a view to raising sufficient money to purchase the building and to create an Arts Centre for the town.  At that time, the organ remained intact and was used for some of these concerts. 

A feasibility study was commissioned by the Guild, to explore the possibility of creating a performance space at the upper floor level and exhibition spaces, cafe and meeting rooms at ground level.  The Guild's plans were frustrated  by the arrival of Borderline.  By 1985 Guild activities transferred to Dansarena, in the former Cathartic Church, and funds were diverted to the Bill Grierson Fund for the support of young people entering the arts.

Borderline Theatre Company was established in the late-1970's.  One of their earliest performances was in the main lounge at Ayr station Hotels, were they performed a contemporary work by Ann Jellicoe

In its first year Borderline toured ten productions across Ayrshire playing to audiences in venues ranging from converted Nissen huts to Victorian town halls.  Within two years the company were selling-out at London's Royal Court with Billy Connolly's An Me Wi A Bad Leg Tae.

Throughout the 70's and 80's Borderline's reputation for presenting entertaining accessible quality theatre grew with productions such as Connolly's second play When Hair was Long And Time Was Short, winner of the company's first Fringe First award, John Byrne's Cara Coco, a ground breaking Dick Whittington starring Robbie Coltrane and a string of successes with Dario Fo plays including Can't Pay, Won't Pay, Female Parts and Trumpets & Raspberries, with Elaine C. Smith and Andy Gray (deemed by Fo himself as the best production I have seen outside Italy)  Robbie Coltrane's one-man tour de force in Mistero Buffo, which was subsequently screened on BBC2 in 1990 and Morag Fullarton's Play it Again Tam featuring Gregor Fisher, which won the company its second Fringe First.

Despite their successes in the 70's and 80's, often furth of Ayrshire, remained a touring group with a limited footprint in Ayr itself.  WHile there was engagement with the education services in South Ayrshire through provision of youth theatres and school workshops, there were relatively few performances in the home theatre.  Eventually, faced by health and safety issues, the theatre itself fell into disuse.

Changes in the financial support of Scottish Theatre saw Borderline facing difficulties with the Scottish Arts Council, always a major funder of their touring activities.   They were advised that their revenue funding from the Scottish Arts Council will cease after March, 2007.   The Scottish Arts Council told Borderline, one of Scotland's leading and longest established touring theatre companies, that they were not in fashion with the quango as "the council's rationale is to support artists and Borderline are audience-focused."  At that time, Borderline was the only arts company in Ayrshire to receive core funding from the Scottish Arts Council.

Despite a significant reduction in income, the company managed to continue their production schedules and had a some measure of success with plays written by Ayrshire author D. C. Jackson.  However, by the summer of 2009 it seemed likely that the company would fold.

In July 2009, the Ayrshire Post reported:

The curtain has fallen on award winning Borderline Theatre.  The 35-year-old touring theatre company has been operating on the breadline for more than a year. and it’s cash finally ran out this week when bosses were forced to hand back the keys for their base in North Harbour Street.  The move comes after the Scottish Arts Council axed funding.  And it marks the end of an era for the company which saw some of the brightest stars in Scottish show business pass through its doors.

Although funding applications are in the pipeline for individual projects, the company could no longer afford to pay staff and run an office.  .  .  .    “The board decided to act prudently so that the company doesn't become defunct and we can still apply for funding.  We will rise from the ashes like a phoenix – it’ll be a slim phoenix, but a phoenix nonetheless.”

Borderline Theatre company continue touring shows on a regular basis and have attracted some project funding for their activities.  Their administrative base is at the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine.

Since the building was vacated in 2009 there has been no maintenance on the exterior,  However, South Ayrshire Council has recently allocated funds to Ayr Building Preservation Trust to undertake an Options Appraisal for the building.

Information on this page culled from personal recollections, Borderline Theatre website, Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, the Ayrshire Post and the British Theatre Guide.

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1.  Ayr Borderline Theatre, formerly the Darlington Church from the New Bridge.   magnify  ©M.Bailey

2.  Ayr Borderline Theatre viewed from South Harbour Street.  magnify ©M.Bailey

3.  Ayr Borderline Theatre viewed from River Street.  magnify  ©M.Bailey

4.  Rear view of Ayr Borderline Theatre.  magnify  ©M.Bailey

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