Theatre legend Ray Spencer on his amazing years at The Customs House, and his hopes for the future

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Ray Spencer. Submitted.Ray Spencer. Submitted.
Ray Spencer. Submitted. | Ray Spencer. Submitted.

When Ray Spencer MBE retired from his role as Executive Director of The Customs House the South Shields venue named its theatre after him, such is the impact his work has had locally and regionally.

Here Ray, who was also awarded freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, outlines his journey – and that of The Customs House – over the last 25 years.

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The first day of a new millennium was the start of a new era for The Customs House and for me.

I knew the venue well through years of performing there, but I was leaving a steady and secure public sector job as a lecturer at South Tyneside College to lead a venue whose future was by no means certain - I was the fifth director in five years.

Not unusually for the arts, the job became a vocation.

Ray Spencer MBE with his Ambassador of the Year Award.Ray Spencer MBE with his Ambassador of the Year Award.
Ray Spencer MBE with his Ambassador of the Year Award. | Kev Brady

Although the building had been saved by the community there was no great love towards the organisation, its users felt no ownership.

However, the debut of musical Tom and Catherine (written by Tom Kelly with music from John Miles) in 1999 was proof that if we provided the right content then South Tyneside would support us.

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It sounds simplistic, but that’s what we’ve done – The Customs House tells stories about the area that are written by local writers, performed by local actors and designed and lit by local creatives.

We have told so many stories through brilliant musicals and plays which have reflected our communities. Several have gone on to be shared with other communities across the world. I was delighted with a 14-week tour of Arts Council England supported Follow The Herring - we toured a knitted boat with community choirs and held an arts exhibition in 12 coastal communities.

Ray Spencer in Aladdin, The Customs House panto of 2023/2024Ray Spencer in Aladdin, The Customs House panto of 2023/2024
Ray Spencer in Aladdin, The Customs House panto of 2023/2024 | The Customs House

The Awkward Squad, about the role of women in the Miners’ Strike ended up in the West End, and then our excellent musicals written by Tom and John, the last being Dolly Mixtures which told the unknown story of eight incredible women.

These and our award-winning pantomimes gave the community reasons to care: from youth theatre to ukuleles, from community choirs and big bands, breakdancing to live art classes they understand art is for them – and the venue is theirs. 

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The Lockdown demonstrated that ownership when the local community raised over £140,000 to make sure we could reopen. Over the same period of time South Tyneside Council remained firm supporters.

Only this week (w/c May 6) the Arts Council reaffirmed its commitment to The Customs House with the announcement of more than £446,200 of funding for the venue from its Capital Investment Programme. This generous new award, thanks to Government funding, will lead to important new infrastructure improvements to the ageing but much-loved building.

This is more evidence of Arts Council England’s long-term commitment which started with a vital intervention when I first took over, providing funding and helping us with a recovery plan, and again when the pressures of austerity pushed us towards the precipice.  

More recently I was thrilled to see the bold redistribution of arts funding which has certainly recognised our work. In November 2022 the Arts Council named South Tyneside as one of 54 Priority Places across England – promising an extra focus in areas where cultural investment and engagement had been low.

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I was delighted when the Arts Council launched its ten-year Let’s Create strategy in 2020. Its aims – to provide access to high-quality cultural experiences to everyone and to recognise how cultural activity can regenerate communities while improving the wellbeing of individuals – echoed our own ambitions at The Customs House.

Ray in his much-loved guise of Tommy the Trumpeter Ray in his much-loved guise of Tommy the Trumpeter
Ray in his much-loved guise of Tommy the Trumpeter

We had even better news from the Arts Council when it announced our 2023-26 National Portfolio Organisation funding was almost doubled, from £104,000 to £204,000.

That extra funding has made a huge difference to what we can do, allowing us to reach out to different audiences and to give local creatives opportunities to create new and exciting pieces of work.

In particular we’ve been able to deliver three projects – our First Play Club has given new writers an opportunity to have their debut plays staged; our Future Creatives programme has nurtured emerging artists aged 25 and under across various art forms, and our Plays Without Words programme has produced performances with no dialogue or for audiences whose first language isn’t English.

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The Customs House, so long the only National Portfolio Organisation in the borough, now has two other South Tyneside partners (Jarrow Hall and the Library Service) and working with other organisations has helped produced a strong cultural strategy for the area called Making Waves.

Being a founder member of Cultural Spring, The Customs House is thrilled to see how community champions have become not just consumers, but curators; not just participants but producers. That idea of engaging with communities and people who would consider the arts for ‘someone else’ was the reason we became a core partner of The Cultural Spring, the excellent Arts Council England Creative People and Places funded project that continues to have a huge impact in South Tyneside and Sunderland

While I’m hugely proud of the shows we’ve produced and the exceptional talent we’ve nurtured and grown I’m also massively proud of our groundbreaking community engagement work.

Ray Spencer MBE receives the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, from Mayor Cllr Pat Hay, at South Shields Town Hall.Ray Spencer MBE receives the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, from Mayor Cllr Pat Hay, at South Shields Town Hall.
Ray Spencer MBE receives the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, from Mayor Cllr Pat Hay, at South Shields Town Hall.

For instance, the brilliant, Government funded Creative Partnership scheme we ran in the early 2000s allowed us to work with 140 schools across South Tyneside and North Tyneside. The project nurtured creativity in young people, using the arts to help deliver STEM subjects and the results were spectacular. Research showed positive impact on pupil attainment in subjects, including English and science, alongside attendance, well-being and engagement.

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Creative Partnership was followed by Find Your Talent, another Government-funded pilot programme. It aimed to give schoolchildren in the UK five hours per week of high-quality cultural experiences and we were chosen as one of ten national pathfinders. Again, this programme allowed us to work creatively with groups of people who would not normally engage with the arts.

Ray in his early days at The Westovians.Ray in his early days at The Westovians.
Ray in his early days at The Westovians. | Ray in his early days at The Westovians.

The Customs House has an exciting future under the leadership team of Kelly Anders and Fiona Martin and further major investment making it an even better place to get involved with and visit.

Backed by a strong board and the continued support of the South Tyneside Council and Arts CounciI England I have no doubt it will scale new heights.

Culture has the power to shape and reinvigorate communities and creativity can do the same with people – making their lives better, happier, healthier and more fulfilled.

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I consider myself a lucky man to have had a job I loved for so long, to see so many people develop their talent, and others develop a love for the arts.

I’ll not be a stranger to The Customs House – and I hope you won’t either!

Ray Spencer MBE

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