Durham's Gala Theatre celebrates its first anniversary tomorrow but it hasn't exacactly been theatrical Viagra.

Sarah Foster asks what's in store for its future.

THE opening scene did not look promising. The curtain went up with a fanfare, but the stars failed to materialise. Then the theatre bosses turned out to be the baddies, leaving the poor local traders up to their ears in debt. And to top it all, the theatre manager, who was supposed to be a goodie, was strangely banished from the drama.

If the Gala Theatre's first year was the opening act of a play, the audience could be forgiven for not staying until the interval. From the disaster of unsold tickets for the grand opening, even though it featured Westlife, the most popular group in the country, to the management company, The Entertainment Team, going into liquidation, running up debts of £700,000 in just four months, it has lurched from one crisis to another. General manager Rob Flower had been cast as hero of the piece, but in a "staff restructuring" he exited, stage left.

Looking at the newspaper headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking it was really called the "Troubled Gala Theatre".

Now Colin Shearsmith, chief executive of Durham City Council, has stepped into the limelight. With new staff at his disposal, he is continuing the quest to make the Gala a success. He admits that his role is a challenging one.

"When the Entertainment Team went into liquidation, people worried about the future of the Gala," he says. "In some respects, they couldn't differentiate between the Entertainment Team and the operation of the Gala. A lot of people thought the Gala was closed and we suffered from that in terms of ticket sales."

Mr Shearsmith has no compunction about casting the Entertainment Team as the baddie. He reels off a list of its failings - notably its poor programming and marketing - and indicates that the Gala is much the better for casting it off. I ask for evidence of how things have improved, and he tells me that recent shows have sold out, but when pressed can come up with just one example: King Lear. While it was a notable coup to attract a nationally-feted show starring a household name, it is the sort of production which would sell out anywhere.

Mr Shearsmith is reluctant to discuss the theatre's finances, although does admit that it is losing money. But he says the spring programme should help boost the box office. He concedes that some previous shows were way off the mark in terms of target audiences, naturally the fault of the Entertainment Team, but says he has great faith in the latest programme.

It does seem to cater for a broad range of tastes and ages, with highlights including The Blues Brothers, Jane Eyre and the premiere of Glenn McCrory's autobiographical play, Carrying David. But will it be enough to pull in audiences, especially with the nearby Sunderland Empire and Newcastle's Theatre Royal boasting star-studded shows?

Mr Shearsmith says he does not even consider them as competition. "Sunderland and Newcastle get the big stuff and we get the community stuff," he says. "Gala is designed to be a community theatre and there has to be scope for local people and local groups to take part."

This seems fair enough - although it does raise the prospect of it becoming a glorified village hall, with endless productions of An Inspector Calls - but is it really that different from other theatres?

Along with programming, marketing seems likely to dominate the Gala's second year. With support from Northern Arts, the council is paying consultants £16,000 to carry out a "market mapping" exercise, to determine who is going to the theatre and what people want to see. Funnily enough, Rob Flower told The Northern Echo last July that a survey was going to be undertaken into what people wanted to see at the Gala, and even then he acknowledged that it was a little belated. Things obviously do not move swiftly in the world of theatre.

After putting itself at the helm since May, the council is in no hurry to find new managers for the Gala. Indeed, Mr Shearsmith suggests one option is that the council will continue running it, although presumably the reason why the Entertainment Team was brought in in the first place was that the council felt it lacked the expertise to manage a theatre.

"Clearly, we don't want a repeat of the Entertainment Team - we want to make sure that whoever we appoint this time will get it right," he says.

He says some companies have expressed an interest in running the Gala since the Entertainment Team's demise, although it's instructive that when the job of managing the £14m venue was first advertised Europe-wide, only two companies applied.

But now those villains are out of the way, the Gala has been doing rather better, he says. One of the changes is that visiting theatre companies are invited on the basis that they will take a share of the box office, instead of being paid a flat fee. He says this requires them to have faith in their productions, although cynics might suggest it shows that the Gala doesn't have faith in its programming.

If the council is to take charge permanently, this raises the question of who is going to pay for it, should it continue to make a loss. Mr Shearsmith says this year the shortfall will be made up by a contingency fund, but admits that council taxpayers will ultimately have to contribute. He promises that the sums involved will be neither "outrageous", nor "unacceptable", but it's still a burden many of those taxpayers were not anticipating.

But some comfort can be had in the Gala's thrifty approach to marketing. Not for them expensive radio adverts, or posters around the city advertising the theatre's wares to its local audience. Instead, councillors have been asked to put up posters in post offices and village halls.

He hopes that publicity will also help invigorate the Gala's giant screen cinema. While admitting that the reaction to its specially-commissioned historical film, The Sacred Journey, has been "disappointing" - indeed it regularly plays to an empty auditorium - he is remarkably confident of attracting coach parties to see it.

The giant screen, heralded last year as a major plus for the Gala, now seems to have become something of a millstone, the problem being that only a handful of films are available in that format. Once you've done Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King, you kind of run out of things to see. Mr Shearsmith says they plan to convert the projector to show mainstream films within two months. Funnily enough, when the Gala opened a year ago, it was going to be showing standard sized films "within a few months". Now Durham's only other cinema has closed, at least there should be a market for films.

But at least the council is trying to make a go of the Gala, although with a £14m investment at stake it would have been a brave move indeed to close it down. For now, however, it's too soon to say if it will go back to its original name, and drop the "troubled". It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said there are no second acts in American lives. Whether that applies to theatres is yet to be seen.