Behind the scenes at the volunteer-run Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York
- Credit: Archant
As a volunteer-run York theatre raises the curtain on its £3million revamp, we go behind the scenes with its fundraising musical company.
The Joseph Rowntree Theatre doesn’t look bad for an octogenarian. It might be 84 on its next birthday, but its listed Art Deco frontage and freshly spruced-up auditorium gives it a youthful glow that belies its years. Originally built for the workers at Rowntree’s factory in Haxby Road, York, as somewhere to let their hair down after a hard day putting the snap into KitKats and inflating the bubbles in Aeros, it became a registered charity in 2003, run by a board of trustees, and was purchased by York St John University from Nestlé in 2012 before finally being bought by the board in 2017.
It is run entirely by volunteers; around 150 of them who take on every role from chair of the trustees to ice cream seller.
‘People are always surprised that we don’t have any paid staff,’ said Dan Shrimpton, the aforementioned chair of the trustees, who joined the team as a teenage stagehand in 1993. ‘We pride ourselves on offering a professional service, but we rarely actually use that word because it implies that we’re paid. Instead, we talk about our quality of service which, thanks to all our volunteers, is right up there.’
The theatre has just revealed it is in the early stage of an ambitious but achievable £3million development project to further improve the already impressive facilities and re-evaluate the footprint of the building to include a bar/refreshment area, better toilets (always prominent on theatre-goers’ wishlists) and more space for audiences to enjoy pre-show and interval mingling.
‘We also want to make more of the building as a hub for the community, opening it up for more than just theatre productions; for meetings, perhaps, and small conferences,’ said Dan. ‘Realistically, we are talking upwards of £3m. In terms of timescale, let’s say a year for planning, at least a year for fundraising and a year for construction. It’s not going to be a quick turnaround, but it will happen.’
Booking fees from companies and performers who choose to stage their shows at the theatre currently provide enough money for its maintenance and annual upkeep. Additional fundraising channels for the redevelopment include grant applications (almost a full-time job in itself), a new Friends scheme, which will offer three levels of affordable membership, the already popular annual Choir Festival, several Music Nights spread throughout the year and pop-up cafés and table top sales at St Crux in central York.
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Another key component in the theatre’s future success in terms of fundraising and community involvement is the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company, established in 2017 to raise money for the venue while entertaining audiences with innovative new productions of both classic and contemporary musicals.
The in-house company was founded by producer-director Kayleigh Oliver who, in ‘real life’, runs The York Makery in Gillygate, with able support from assistant director Alex Schofield, an HR advisor at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Both have performed many times on the Joseph Rowntree Theatre stage and were keen to help build on its already enviable reputation as a quality, inclusive venue.
‘We wanted to give back to the theatre as a thank you for the support it has shown performers and companies across the city for decades,’ said Kayleigh, who graduated from the University of York with an MA in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance. ‘Most theatres have their own company and, once we put forward our case, the board decided to go for it. They’ve been very generous, giving us free rein to choose our own shows and our own style.’
The company launched in high-kicking, goose-stepping style with The Producers in February 2018, raising an impressive £4,500. Its second production, Kiss Me, Kate, hits the stage next month (Feb 6th-9th) with an expanded company in an even more expansive staging of Cole Porter’s classic show-within-a-show.
‘It’s humbling to see so many incredibly talented people, with a range of experience, prepared to put themselves out there to perform for us,’ said Alex, who has played principal roles in Jorvik Gilbert & Sullivan Company since 2011 and directed their 2016 production of The Pirates of Penzance. ‘It makes us even more determined to ensure everyone gets a chance to shine. It might not be a big number but everyone will have their moment.’
Among those getting their chance to shine in Kiss Me, Kate are Larry Gibson, a retired teacher and special needs coordinator, and Charlotte Wood who, following in the footsteps of many actresses before her, is waitressing while working towards a place at drama school.
Larry played Roger (Elizabeth) De Bris in The Producers, gamely donning an evening gown in the first half, and has secured the role of first gangster in Kiss Me, Kate, which sees him singing the comedic classic Brush Up Your Shakespeare with fellow gangster (and real life maths teacher) Alastair Bush.
‘I’m more of a singer than an actor, but I like to challenge myself,’ he said. ‘I only started performing about ten years ago. Before that, my life was all about sport.
‘I knew I could sing, I just wasn’t sure I could do it on stage. I’m so glad I gave it a go though. It’s been a magical ten years and I’ve performed all over, including the Royal Albert Hall.’
While Larry was a relative latecomer to the theatre, Charlotte, who’s playing the key role of Lois Lane (not that one) in Kiss Me, Kate, has been involved all her life.
‘My parents ran a drama school so I’ve been in this business since birth,’ she said. ‘At three, I announced I was going to be a famous actress. My parents quite rightly pointed out that it was very difficult and that they had been trying all their lives. I said, well I will just have to be better than you, won’t I. Blimey!’
Her dad, Neil, who still teaches musical theatre and is a lead associate teacher with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is also in the show as General Howell, which means he’ll be on hand to help Charlotte celebrate her 21st birthday on opening night.
‘I love musicals and love Kiss Me, Kate in particular because it’s so frenzied and fun,’ she continued. ‘It’s one of those musicals that people think they don’t know well, but then you start playing them the songs – Too Darn Hot, Another Openin’, Another Show and Always True to You in My Fashion – and they’re always like, well I know this one of course, oh and this one, and that one’s fantastic.’
In future, the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company aims to give other theatre-makers the chance to produce and direct fundraising shows, using the template for success established by Kayleigh and Alex with help from their production team and cast.
‘By building strong foundations now, we hope to create a lasting legacy,’ said Kayleigh.
In the meantime, however, the Kiss Me, Kate cast have dance routines to learn under the expert tutelage of choreographer Julie Shrimpton, songs to perfect with guidance from musical director Tim Selman and a whole lot of lines to memorise before taking to the stage at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.
Altogether now: ‘Another openin’, another show … ’
Kiss Me, Kate runs at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York from February 6th-9th. For details and tickets, visit josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.