Ambitious plan for historic York theatre's future

Built in 1935 for the betterment of the city, York’s only community theatre of its kind retains rich threads of its Art Deco charm.

Graham Mitchell at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York
Graham Mitchell at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York

The turquoise stalls, bold designs and dramatic style of the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, so typical of the time, have been meticuslously preserved over decades of use.

But much has changed since its heyday, say owners, and the time has come to adapt to 21st century demands.

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Now the groundwork is being prepared for its future, while preserving the best of its past.

Inside the auditorium

“As far as we’re aware, it’s the only standalone community theatre in the country, and potentially the world, built for members of the Quaker faith,” said events director Graham Mitchell.

“We want to make it a vibrant community hub. We want to improve that sense of inclusion, but bring it forward to open it up to all.”

Modernising

Plans are afoot for the future of the theatre, making it more accessible, creating social spaces, and modernising its use for modern day needs.

The Rowntree family, pioneers of social reform, created the city’s confectionary legacy which remains to this day one of the biggest in the world.

Its reach though was bigger than sweets, and the theatre was created as part of a vision for education and entertainment for the family and York’s community.

“Seebohm Rowntree led the company into breaking new ground on industrial relations in the 1900s, he established canteens, doctors and dentists for workers, even a convalescent home near Scarborough,” said Mr Mitchell, of the charity which now owns the theatre.

“It was all a part of the Rowntree family at that time. The theatre was intended for use by the family, and community, as a place of education and entertainment.

“At the same time as modernising, it is vital that we preserve the unique heritage of Rowntree’s Cocoa Works, of which the theatre was an integral part - and we will.”

Community use

Around 35 groups regularly use the theatre, from musical societies to opera, theatrical and youth theatre groups, and it is host to events such as York Community Choir Festival.

But the building wasn’t built to accommodate modern need. There are steps to the entrance, then more in the foyer, and there is no space for socialising or for smaller groups to use.

“They built it at a time, in the 1930s, when an evening out meant a walk through the foyer, perhaps standing to get an ice cream in the interval, but when the show finished they left,” said Mr Mitchell.

“People don’t do that now. They come early, for a drink or a meal, and they socialise afterwards. We don’t have the facilities to make that possible.

“We are preparing the ground for development, which if we raise the money, would be two or three years off yet.”

Friends scheme

A theatre ‘friends’ scheme has been launched to fund designs and permissions, ahead of the financing of an ambitious plan to expand and improve.

And the charity is to consult with members of the community as it seeks opinions of what their vision for its’ future would be.

“It’s been a core part of the Rowntree family - a lot of the people who worked there and still do volunteer with us,” adds Mr Mitchell. “Rowntrees are a part of the very social fabric of York. Their input, into the city’s social history, is important.

“For us, to carry on their ethos is to share that memory of how Rowntrees affected people, not just here, but across the country.”

Founded by village trustees as a place for recreation and education, the site is now owned by the Joseph Rowntree Theatre charity and run entirely by volunteers.

Dame Judi Dench’s father was once a volunteer stage hand here, while it has helped launch the careers of former Doctor Who and Harry Potter star David Bradley.

“Our purpose as a charity is to be a vibrant community hub of activity promoting the performing arts and other entertainment,” said chairman Dan Shrimpton as he extends the ‘friends’ scheme to wider supporters.

“To do this successfully in the 21st century demands that we improve the facilities on offer whilst preserving the best of the past.”