Theatre Royal Wakefield: Wakefield Theatre Royal's executive director Katie Town explains why panto helps the theatre to take more risks

It’s a drizzly Thursday afternoon at Theatre Royal Wakefield and three men are attempting to move a huge piece of scenery into place on the stage.

“That one’s a nightmare,” says executive director Katie Town. “It’s really big and wobbly. I think it’s going to take three people to move it into place every time.”

Backstage, there’s a huge purple dragon and a variety of other props on the floor.

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There are less than two weeks to go before this year’s pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, opens and the production staff are walking through the scenery changes, timing how long they take and ironing out any glitches.

Katie Town, executive director of Theatre Royal Wakefield.Katie Town, executive director of Theatre Royal Wakefield.
Katie Town, executive director of Theatre Royal Wakefield.

The actors will move into the 500-seat theatre for rehearsals next week before the opening night on November 28.

Pantomimes are the lifeblood of regional theatres like Theatre Royal Wakefield. This year’s show involves an ‘army’ of people, according to Ms Town, made up of 12-14 production staff, a cast of seven and a junior chorus of six plus three musicians.

The six-week run, which sells approximately 30,000 seats, contributes 30 per cent to all theatre sales throughout the year.

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"It’s our most important part of the year,” says Ms Town. “In many ways it enables us to make riskier choices at other points of the year and to give a variety of programming where some of it won’t sell as well because we’ve got the pantomime, which is the bit that stabilises the business model for the rest of the year.”

Theatre Royal Wakefield is a charity but it doesn’t have any regular public subsidies.

This year it received a one-off grant of about £35,000 from Wakefield Council for the participation activities it runs but the majority of its income comes from ticket sales.

According to Ms Town, its turnover is getting back towards its pre-covid level of £1.8m.

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"We generate 85 per cent of our income through dealing with the general public through bars and ticket sales. The remaining 15 per cent is what we fundraise for,” says Ms Town.

The theatre has an active fundraising campaign, underpinned by its community work. As well as receiving donations, it organises events such as afternoon teas, on stage dinners and history tours.

It also offers musical theatre training for children aged five to 18, a programme for disabled young people and works with the local refugee and asylum seeker community. It also has a programme of work for socially isolated older people.

"We see that work with our community as being just as important as the performances we put on stage,” says Ms Town. “But the performances that we put on stage generate the income we need to enable us to invest in the community.”

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The theatre employs a core team of less than 20 for most of the year, although that number rises during panto season.

It also relies on 140 volunteers who work in both front of house and its Theatre of Sanctuary, a project that supports refugees and asylum seekers.

Looking ahead, the theatre also has an eye on its spring schedule. Tickets have just gone on sale to the general public and the box office saw its busiest public ‘on sale’ day since Covid.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook, which is brilliant,” says Ms Town. “Theatre has taken a bit of a hit over the last few years so to be back at pre-covid ticket sales is fantastic.”