20 Years of North East Theatre
THEATRE ROYAL, NEWCASTLE
Newcastle’s Theatre Royal received its Letters Patent from King George III in 1787; a Royal approval that raised the curtain on a stage history that has unfolded with few interruptions to the present day. Even the outbreak of the Second World War only halted onstage proceedings for a matter of weeks. When it first opened, the Georgian theatre stood on Mosely Street – becoming the city’s first purpose-built dramatic venue and has, ever since, attracted some of the brightest stars to its stage.
As Victorian development swept through the city, the theatre was relocated to where it now stands on the illustrious Grey Street; although its appearance as one of the city’s most iconic structures was only finalised after a fire devastated the original theatre in 1899. Enter Frank Matcham, leading theatre architect of his day. In 1900, Matcham rebuilt the theatre from its ashes; extending the stage and auditorium to ensure that the Theatre Royal continued to attract only the best touring companies.
While the 1980s saw the first real modernisation of the theatre, it has been within the last 20 years that the Theatre Royal embarked upon a major £5 million restoration of its famous auditorium – developers recreating Matcham’s template by using old photographs, original plans and contemporary catalogues.
‘We spent a couple of years researching what the auditorium was originally like, so it’s as faithful a restoration as it can be,’ explains Philip Bernays, Chief Executive of the Theatre Royal Trust. ‘Even the curtains are swagged in exactly the same way as Frank Matcham swagged them in his drawings.
‘We’re very passionate about upholding Frank’s legacy here, because he really was the world’s greatest theatre architect. He just understood the relationship between the actor and the audience, and he made his theatres feel special. When you come into the Theatre Royal, there’s a sense of anticipation. Actors love it, because they get an excited audience; the acoustics are brilliant and, for an actor, you can practically touch the audience, they’re so close. The way the auditorium sweeps round and embraces the stage means everyone’s a part of what’s going on.’
Another aspiration of the renovation was to create more room for the Theatre Royal’s Learning and Engagement programme – the core of their strong relationship with the local community.
‘We genuinely think there are social, cultural, educational and, indeed, economic benefits of theatres,’ reasons Philip. ‘Theatre is all about teamwork. When you’re on the stage, you are a family. Working with kids who haven’t had the greatest of opportunities and who may not have great social skills, and getting them to work together and play (because a “play” is play, at the end of the day) and build up those relationships is so good for them. We do that with all age ranges and abilities, so everybody benefits.’
Having celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2012 with a triumphant series of events, projects and a gala that many in the city will remember, it is not hard to see why the Theatre Royal is one of the best-loved show venues in the North East. But, as Philip explains, its success is as much down to its local patrons as it is to its own, illustrious onstage endeavours.
‘Why are we one of the most successful large-scale presenting theatres in the country?’ ponders Philip. ‘I would say it’s the audiences. There is a huge warmth to what we do here from the people in this part of the world. Actors always say they love playing here, because if the audience likes something, they know it, and if the audience doesn’t like something, they know it as well. There’s something about the fact that our audiences are real, honest people that creates this extraordinary shared experience and makes shows at the Theatre Royal so exciting. Long may that continue.’
In March 2016, Darlington Civic Theatre embarked upon a £13.7 million project – centred around the transformation and restoration of the Grade II-listed building to its former glory, while incorporating 21st century amenities to facilitate an expanded artistic programme. Reopening in 2017 under the new name of the Darlington Hippodrome, the venue has successfully reimagined its cultural space for a whole new generation of theatregoers: creating an inviting and inspirational social hub for the town in the process.
‘There’s been a growing realisation that what brings our community to life is, in part, the cultural offering of the town,’ explains Lynda Winstanley, the theatre’s Director. ‘The Hippodrome makes Darlington a town where it is obvious that we place culture highly in our priorities. We want to enrich the lives of our residents, and those further afield, and one of the things we’ve been able to do because of the restoration is to open new facilities like our education space – which is home to our Youth Theatre and Dance Company, and is a place where people can take part in activities beyond going to a show. Being able to open up the theatre more broadly to the community is so important.’
The work completed has been extensive, allowing Darlington Hippodrome to throw open its doors to a greater range of artistic experiences by making provisions not only for more complex set designs and production companies backstage, but also by improving access for its visitors front of house. One important aspect of this was the increased provision for The Hullabaloo: a centre of excellence for young people’s theatre and the only one of its kind north of London. Putting young people at the heart of their creative process, pioneering company Theatre Hullabaloo is driven by the belief that young audiences have an entitlement to theatre of the highest quality, which inspires the imagination and challenges the mind.
‘There are fantastic opportunities for young people to experience wonderful theatre and to hopefully develop a lifelong enjoyment of theatregoing here,’ says Lynda. ‘As for the auditorium in the Hippodrome, we’ve restored it, as far as possible, to how it would have looked when it opened in 1907. But now we have lift access to all levels, better ventilation, better sight lines, and there’s been big improvements to the stage, which enables us to present larger, more complicated shows. It’s been the biggest change the theatre has undergone in all of its 111 years.’
The concept of preserving the theatre’s rich cultural history is something that has remained central to its regeneration. When it opened in 1907, Darlington Hippodrome was the third in ‘Italy’s Greatest Protean and Quick Change Artist’ Signor Rino Pepi’s empire of theatres – a man who made one of his first appearances on the stage before Queen Victoria in her castle at Florence. His own experience as an artist of international repute played a significant role in the Hippodrome’s ability to attract a gamut of performers to its stage, and its variety in entertainment is something that the venue continues to prides itself on.
‘There has always been a wide diversity of acts coming here, and that continues in the present day,’ explains Lynda. ‘We try to mix together a programme that includes drama, comedy, dance, musicals, and some great one-nighters. The Hippodrome is still the place for a wonderful night out, that hasn’t changed since 1907.’
When thinking about the recent developments within the performing arts sector in the North East, it would be something of a sin to neglect Sage Gateshead. The opening of the concert venue and centre for musical education in 2004 marked the culmination of eight years of hard work by Gateshead Council – through the largest single Arts Lottery funding award ever granted outside London – to turn a derelict former industrial site on the banks of the River Tyne into one of the finest centres for music in the world.
Developers of Sage Gateshead certainly met their brief of ‘filling the gap’ for music venues in the North East, while helping the collective effort to make Newcastle-Gateshead a truly enviable arts destination – creating an iconic structure that towers at 40 metres tall at its highest point, with a glass roof that spans the equivalent of eight basketball courts and enough stainless steel to cover two football pitches. Built using a specially-made concrete, which has extra air bubbles that help with sound proofing and acoustics, the three auditoriums within Sage Gateshead deliberately don’t touch each other at any point; Sage One is designed to be ‘acoustically perfect’ and modelled on the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna, while the 10-sided Sage Two is a far more intimate setting and the Northern Rock Foundation Hall is, to all extents and purposes, a rehearsal space for the Northern Sinfonia.
Now managed entirely by the North Music Trust to ensure that all aspects of its artistic programme – performance, learning and participation – remain closely linked, Sage Gateshead looks set to entertain, involve and inspire the North East community for many years to come.
Now fondly known as ‘the West End of the North East’, the Sunderland Empire has continually triumphed against the odds over its 111-year history to achieve its status as one of the North East’s premier show venues – beginning with its founder, the enterprising entrepreneur Richard Thornton.
Having risen through the theatrical ranks from lowly beginnings as a busker on Marsden seafront, Richard became successful enough to enter into partnership with one of the contemporary heads of British theatre, Edward Moss. It was a partnership that was to change the northern theatre provinces of the early 1900s forever. Together the pair established ‘Empire Palaces’ throughout the region, with admission policies geared to the economic constraints of the day – enabling the working classes to attend comfortable, clean venues and see quality productions for the first time. Indeed, many attribute the Thornton/Moss upgrading of theatres to have paved the way for their acceptance as centres for family entertainment. But it was the dissolution of this prolific partnership that led to the Sunderland Empire’s creation; Thornton, restless for a theatre of his own, opened his first solo Empire Palace on the site in 1907.
After the Depression of the 1920s, a revival came to theatre across the country during the late 1930s and, by the Second World War, the Sunderland Empire thrived through a general desperation for escapism through entertainment. But with the advent of television and cinemascope in the ‘50s, theatres across the UK struggled, playing to ever-decreasing audiences, and hundreds were forced to close – the Sunderland Empire being one of them. Astonishingly, the Corporation (now Sunderland City Council) took the unprecedented step of buying the theatre for £50,000 and, after a brief closure, the Sunderland Empire re-opened in 1960 as the first ever ‘number one’ theatre under civic control.
Having undergone large-scale refurbishments three times since – the former Music Hall area of the 1907 design transformed into a cinema in the ‘70s and, later, into a function room; the extensive redecoration of the auditorium and foyer in 1986; and the creation of an increased dressing room block, dance studio and administration offices during the 1990s – it was the Millennium that heralded the dawn of the new, modern era for the Sunderland Empire. Live Nation taking over its management in 2000 paved the way for a multi-million pound refurbishment in 2004, where a larger, flat stage was installed and the venue’s backstage facilities were significantly enhanced – meaning that the Sunderland Empire is now the only theatre between Edinburgh and Manchester capable of staging large-scale West End productions.
Now under the management of the Ambassador Theatre Group, the Sunderland Empire has attracted a sensational series of shows since the redevelopment – including Wicked, Matilda the Musical and Miss Saigon in the last 12 months alone – and has become, beyond all doubt, one of North East’s leading cultural attractions.
While The Stand Comedy Club began life in the basement of a pub just off Edinburgh’s Grassmarket in 1995 as a temporary platform for local comedians, it wasn’t until October 2011 that the franchise stretched it’s wings into England – making Newcastle’s High Bridge venue the only purpose-built, full-time comedy club in the North East.
‘The concept of being for the local community is a massive part of who we are,’ explains Anthony Dorman, Marketing and Promotions Manager at The Stand. ‘Red Raw, which is the new material night, is one of the busiest nights that we do in Newcastle. The majority of acts on Red Raw are local: either they’re from the area, or they’re students who live here. Sometimes we get a big name headliner who will drop in – it’s not unheard of for someone like Kevin Bridges or Sarah Millican to do a quick 10 minutes on Red Raw, because most of them came through the ranks with us and they know we’ll have a really receptive audience here. But the idea is that Red Raw gives local people, both acts and audiences, a chance to give comedy a go.
‘We’ve also got kid shows for five-year-olds and upwards; there are mixed bill shows at the weekend; we’ve got satirical panel shows, and improv shows. They’re all at different ticket prices, so we get a lot of people coming in. The thing that is key for us is that it’s all about the comedy. Our ethos is that the show always comes first. I think that’s why we’ve succeeded: audiences and acts know they can trust us.’
That element of trust has been integral to The Stand’s longevity in the North East. It is the intimate sense of community that is conjured within the converted basement on the tiny, cobbled street of High Bridge that has encouraged recommendations through word-of-mouth, across social groups and generations.
‘It’s not like a theatre production where it’s the same format every night,’ reasons Anthony. ‘A comedy show has that interaction with the audience that always sparks something new. There’s a Glaswegian comedian called Susie McCabe, she often plays here in Newcastle. The last time I saw her she did a brilliant show on stage, and then afterwards circumvented the corridor and said goodbye to everyone in the audience. And I see that often. People don’t expect that kind of interaction.’
What also works well is the location of The Stand’s third and (Anthony insists) final venue. For it is no coincidence that the club’s directors chose Newcastle for their only English outpost.
‘This city lends itself to comedy – Geordies love a laugh,’ smiles Anthony, who himself hails from the North East. ‘So Newcastle was just a natural progression. There was a real demand for it here.’
Creating and presenting theatre that is intrinsically connected to the life of our region, Northern Stage not only collaborates with some of the most original companies on the circuit, but also creates a wealth of opportunities for audiences to participate in the performing arts. Having established itself as a vital resource for theatre development in the North East since its reinvention from the company-led days of the 1980s (when the theatre was still known as the Newcastle Playhouse) Northern Stage’s focus is to champion the creativity of ambitious and adventurous theatre – not only to be performed to the local community, but heavily influenced and inspired by it.
‘When the theatre became Northern Stage in 2006, there was a big change in operation,’ explains Artistic Director, Lorne Campbell. ‘The team really had to build a new audience from scratch. Erica, my predecessor, made a huge investment into performers, writers, directors, designers, and all kinds of creatives from the region, as well as establishing a set of important relationships with national partners – both for taking our own work out on tour, and bringing new work in. The challenge for me has been to accelerate all that.’
The centrality of their focus on supporting the development of local creatives is certainly something that marks Northern Stage out from the (decidedly high calibre) crowd here. It is through initiatives like their NORTH training programme that a real sense of community is conjured, and this is palpable as soon as you walk through the theatre’s doors. But it is perhaps Northern Stage’s capacity to reach out and inhabit venues all across the North East that makes its influence most keenly felt.
‘We talk a lot about the porousness of the organisation,’ reasons Lorne. ‘We’re in an incredibly privileged position to have the resources and the amount of creative talent that we do here. So it remains a case of: how does this organisation serve everyone within the North East? That’s a big change from how theatre used to be. If we can support artists who have never considered theatre for their future before to fully realise themselves, then the work we produce will become relevant for whole communities, rather than just privileged parts of those communities.’
‘I think the other thing is, just as we’ve grown over the last 20 years, so has the wider theatre sector around us,’ seconds Kate Denby, Executive Director at Northern Stage. ‘There are now a number of independent companies that are based in the North East, so continuing to help develop those is a real aspiration. Looking at how we can help make the North East the home base for a rich programme of work that originates from here and takes a part of our identity with them wherever they go.’
THE ROYALTY THEATRE, SUNDERLAND
One of the North East’s oldest amateur dramatic groups, The Royalty Theatre has been entertaining Sunderland for the last 90 years. Producing professional-standard theatre during a regular season (from September to June) that includes six plays, as well as an annual family pantomime, The Royalty generates its own funding entirely from membership subscriptions, sponsorship, the proceeds from outside hires and their own fundraising efforts. As such, The Royalty’s endeavour to maintain its supportive role within the community remains its paramount focus.
‘Maintaining a sense of locality is of great importance to the theatre,’ explains Chair Person, Mike Fletcher. ‘Over the past 20 years, we have opened the doors to local groups, as we really feel that the theatre can be at the heart of the community here in Sunderland.’
Whether it’s hosting its own productions or staging those by external companies, local dance school recitals, flower arranging demonstrations or brass band concerts, The Royalty is often at the centre of the cultural action in Sunderland: always among the first to provide a platform from which the local community can celebrate other creatives within the region. But while it was no shock to their supporters, it seems volunteers at The Royalty were not expecting to receive The Queens Award for Voluntary Service in 2016.
‘It was a great surprise to be given that award,’ admits Mike. ’It really means a great deal to the theatre. The award has helped us to be able to regularly approach local charities and offer them free tickets to the opening night of our main stage productions; then, through that opening show, we can help raise awareness for each of those charities.’
Not only a show venue hoping to entertain the local community but one that, by doing so, returns to that community something worthwhile and long-lasting, The Royalty Theatre’s individuality largely comes from its entirely voluntary status. Whether you want to be a star on the stage, a prop-building extraordinaire, or even if you just want to meet new people and learn new skills, the theatre has a vocation for you to try – and it has only been through the enthusiasm, dedication and ambition of like-minded volunteers here in the North East that The Royalty has retained its unique position as a venue that both entertains, and helps to provide for, the people of Sunderland.
TYNEMOUTH PRIORY THEATRE
Tynemouth Priory Theatre began life as The Priory Theatre club when it formed back in 1946, before assuming its permanent residence in the former Wesleyan Chapel on Percy Street in 1972, and transforming from an amateur repertory company to a local performing institution. And while their focus is dominated by staging high quality dramatic productions, the social side of keeping the theatre running smoothly from one day to the next is also important for the volunteers who come together to keep this coastal jewel afloat.
‘We’re very proud of the fact that we are completely independent,’ says theatre committee member, Ray Lowry. ‘We have no grants, we’re a charity so we do get people donating, but essentially we run off what we can generate through ticket sales. That makes being involved with the theatre much more business-like. To some people, that’s not what a hobby is about, but actually that’s the uniqueness of this enterprise: running this place as a business is, in itself, a pleasure for a lot of people.’
With regular club nights, play readings, quizzes, coffee mornings and after-show parties, Tynemouth Priory Theatre offers ample opportunities for anyone to meet people with like-minded interests and create something special together. As valuable to the local community as it is to its body of volunteers, the theatre centres itself around an annual programme of six productions, all of which cater specifically to the tastes of its local audience.
‘Tynemouth Priory Theatre stands out as being a self-sufficient, longstanding cultural gem in the area,’ says Ray. ‘We do a very particular programme; we have a strong season ticket-holding base, so we tend to be attuned to what our audience would like to see. Because of that, we produce a programme that is different to many other amateur companies. In many ways, we’re more like an old-fashioned repertory company – we put on potboilers, comedies, Agatha Christie plays – which is slightly unusual these days. I don’t know where else you would go if you did want to see those sorts of plays. So we’re niche, but we serve our market well.’