The story behind the Hope Mill Theatre in Ancoats

Above and left: Joe and Will at Hope Mill Theatre

Above and left: Joe and Will at Hope Mill Theatre - Credit: Archant

Their story sounds straight out of La La Land. Two young men decide to open a new independent theatre in Manchester...but will it be a success, asks Janet Reeder

Joe and Will at Hope Mill Theatre

Joe and Will at Hope Mill Theatre - Credit: Archant

It’s the story of two guys who just wanted to make beautiful musicals together.

Will Whelton, 28, and Joe Houston, 27, came up to the north from London with a dream to open an independent theatre.

Will had grown up in Wincle, near Macclesfield, and when he was offered a job as an assistant manager in a restaurant the pair took the opportunity to make the move back to his family home.

Both Will and Joe trained in musical theatre and met in a smash hit all-male production of The Pirates of Penzance, which was touring Australia. But after several years living in London they felt it was time to do something new and more fulfilling.

Will Whelton and Joe Houston at Wills familys farm in Wincle

Will Whelton and Joe Houston at Wills familys farm in Wincle - Credit: Archant

Says Joe: ‘We were falling out of love with London a bit. We were struggling with it being an expensive place to live so I suppose the decision was made at the right time. I’d never been to Manchester before and so it was scary but also exciting.’

As luck would have it, they were asked to tour again with The Pirates of Penzance by the producer, Sasha Regan, so Will never had the chance to manage a restaurant at all.

With Sasha’s encouragement they began believing they could make a small independent theatre enterprise work and after Will had produced two successful pantos at Clonter Opera, near Congleton, bringing in a whole new audience at the opera venue, they went for it.

‘In London where we had been for seven or eight years there are 80 small theatres. Up here there were three or four. There really wasn’t much happening, so we thought we could make it work,’ says Will.

Joe and Will say I do at Manchester Town Hall

Joe and Will say I do at Manchester Town Hall - Credit: Archant

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‘It was still very much a dream that we felt we could do but it was also subject to so many things falling into place, such as finding the finances and the right building. We knew we could do it but we just didn’t know how. We were so naïve but you have to be naïve to take a risk. If we had known how hard it was going to be, or how stressful, there was no way we would have done it!’

The pair viewed only one property – an arch on Deansgate in Manchester city centre - before they found Hope Mill on the advertising website, Gumtree. It had been described as a storage area, though a new floor and toilets had been installed in a bid to turn it into an exhibition space.

Says Will: ‘We came to view it and said that same day we’d take it, without even knowing whether we could raise a deposit. The whole time we just said “yes” to things and then we’d worry about them later. It actually took a couple of months to persuade the landlords to give it to us because they just couldn’t fathom how the space could be a theatre’.

Adds Joe: ‘Because there wasn’t a small theatre scene up here they couldn’t see how it could be financially viable, whereas we had come from London and knew there was a gap that we could fill. There again I guess we didn’t really know how we were going to make the money either!’

In the end they begged the landlords of the Pollard Street building to meet them and did a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style presentation, armed with business plans and cash flow charts – ‘all things we’d never really heard of’.

‘We had to do our research and got loads of quotes from people in London who had successful theatres there and believed it was viable. And we still didn’t have the money,’ reveals Joe.

‘In the beginning we got a business loan each through a government scheme of £5,000 each and then begged and borrowed. And opened as quickly as we could. We didn’t even touch the sides. We said we could open it for 10 grand and it was totally unachievable but as money came in we just kept getting stuff we needed.’

In spite of having a theatre filled with free furniture, borrowed lights and a piano that cost them a tenner they debuted with a musical called Parade with the help of their friend Katy Lipson, a producer and director from Aria Entertainment.

‘She looked at the venue and asked “What do you want to do?” We said, “We want to produce musicals” and she said “I’m in” and that’s where the collaboration started with Katy,’ says Will.

As well as producing their own musicals they hire the theatre to other companies for touring shows and cabarets, although it is musical theatre that remains their passion and they’ve proved rather good at it.

Since opening in 2015, they’ve been showered with critical acclaim for productions such as Hair and Yank! both of which have gone on to be performed in London. Their current show, which runs until September 23rd, is a little known musical, Pippin.

‘That was always our long-term goal to produce musicals here and transfer them,’ says Will.

‘Hair is opening in the Vaults in London in October for four months and Yank! opened at the Charing Cross theatre in London last month.’

Another ‘production’ they had there recently was their very own wedding party, complete with musical entertainment of course!

They now have an apartment close to the venue but still find time to make it over to Wincle and the farm where Will grew up surrounded by pigs, cows, hens chickens and sheep.

Joe, whose family live in his native Scotland: ‘Where Will’s farm is situated is just so picturesque. It’s 1,200ft above sea level and you can see the whole of the Cheshire Plain and on a clear day you can see the mountains of Wales (well that’s for about 10 days a year) usually we are in the clouds, or it’s misty.’

When in the countryside they visit Blaze Farm, an ice cream farm and café - where Will had his first job - and Sutton Hall where he takes his mum for lunch.

‘We really like Alderley Edge too - because we love the Housewives of Cheshire!,’ exclaims Joe.

‘It reminds me a lot of the King’s Road. It’s a just a lovely little high street.’

113 Pollard St, Manchester M4 7JA 0161 275 9141