New stage in life as arts venue aims to cast spell

Kully Thiarai, the director of the new Doncaster Theatre.
Kully Thiarai, the director of the new Doncaster Theatre.
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A £22m arts venue opens in a few weeks in Doncaster. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad finds out why the town deserves to have the new space.

IN Yorkshire it’s fair to say there are places that are the haves – and the have nots. While some are flourishing, others are beleaguered.

It would be difficult to argue against the fact that Doncaster is one of our county’s more down-at-heel towns. The centre is in need of more than a lick of paint and some recent in-comers have discovered there is an attitude within the town reflecting the difficulties Doncaster faces.

“A lot of people have reacted 
by saying ‘what are you doing here?’ Almost as though they 
think the town doesn’t deserve to have something like this,” 
says Kully Thiarai.

As director of CAST, Thiarai is at the helm of a £22m building that she hopes might reverse these ailing fortunes. It’s a big ask.

Alan Lane, the theatre director in charge of a show that will open the venue on September 6, has seen this happen before. “A few years ago, we took a show to Hull and everyone’s reaction was to ask why on earth we wanted to do something like that in Hull. And this was people within the city,” he says.

“When they came to see the show – a show that actually happened in and around the city, they hadn’t just changed their minds about the place where they live and were glad we were there – the way they experienced the place that they live was entirely new and different.”

The hopes are high that CAST will do the same for Doncaster. The building has been a long 
time coming. It was first mooted 20 years ago and has been 
spoken about seriously for over 
a decade.

Graham Whitehead, one of the small team helping to launch the new building, has seen first hand what it means to the people. “The image some people have of the town and of themselves does seem to be quite negative. We have come across a real sense that this won’t and can’t work in ‘our town’. It’s the sense that the town is at the bottom of the pile and that’s just how it will always be,” he says.

“The fact that this is something that people have been waiting and hoping for, literally for decades, really shows when you see them come round the building. A number of people have come in to look around and literally burst into tears when they see it’s actually here. That’s the thing people have most often said – they can’t believe it’s here, and it’s actually real.”

CAST has not only been a long time coming, it’s also desperately needed. A recent Arts Council survey measured engagement in the arts nationally and out of 282 local authorities, Doncaster came 274th.

Talk of “arts engagement” is easily dismissed as the concerns of only a few. The truth is, there should be a sense of shame that here in Yorkshire, in 2013, a town is so low down in the league tables when it comes to people simply not getting involved in any cultural activity. It is a problem that is no longer being ignored.

The town council has dedicated £20m to the building of the 
venue, with a large amount of the money coming from European funding, and the Arts Council has pledged substantially to the remaining £2m it has cost to build the venue.

The theatre is just one part of a drive to reinvigorate the entire, somewhat tired, town centre. A total of £300m is being spent on improving the centre, with CAST the flagship of what will become the civic and cultural quarter.

It is a lot of public money. A huge refurbishment of Sheffield’s Crucible cost just over £15m and a new theatre for Hull, also £15m. Why does Doncaster need that much – and the extra £7m for its own arts venue?

The building has a multi-space main house that will seat 620, a second space seating 200 and a dance studio. But it is about much more than theatre.

“We won’t actually be producing a lot of work of our own,” says Thiarai, the woman who will lead the building in its first age. “It’s not just about that. It’s about having a place the city can call its own, that we can use to bring high quality work to Doncaster.

“We are calling it the town’s cultural living room. I want it to be open for the kids on skateboards at the front of the building to come in and have a drink, and for artists to come here and meet – and to see what happens when they meet.”

As though to demonstrate Thiarai’s point, as we talk in the cafe of the new venue, a Bradford artist, Shanaz Gulzar, comes into the building. She is working alongside long-term collaborator Steve Manthorp, but while in the building started a conversation with another artist.

“That’s the perfect example,” says Thiarai. “Maybe something interesting will come from that meeting and maybe nothing at 
all will come from it – but the point is the venue is here and there are two artists meeting 
here – and it creates the opportunity for something to happen,” she says.

It’s all well and good that £22m has been spent on a new theatre and arts venue – town’s cultural living room or not – but isn’t it difficult to make the argument that this can be justified? In such austere times, is this spending, especially in a place like Doncaster where perhaps the investment needs to be going into the creation directly of jobs, frivolous?

Thiarai has been here before. She set up Contact Theatre in Manchester – a venue that continues to be a success today – she was there, too, at the beginning with Leicester Haymarket and was an early director at Leeds-based theatre company Red Ladder.

“I’ve always been interested in difficult prospects,” says Thiarai.

“Being here in Doncaster remains me of Gateshead, a quite impoverished place that ultimately was transformed by arts and culture. When I was at Contact, everyone told me that I couldn’t make a theatre dedicated to work for young people – we were written off. But I had a hunch that would work. That’s what I have now – a hunch about this place. It also gives me the opportunity to ask questions that haven’t already been asked.

“I think this is an extraordinary building in a town that everyone says doesn’t have a cultural heart. That’s just too good a challenge to ignore.”

The point, she says, is that Doncaster deserves this. Last year Jeremy Deller, an artist of international renown, staged 
work in the town and Thiarai 
says the people of Doncaster deserve to have his work on the doorstep.

When the venue is opened next month it will be so with a launch event directed by Slung Low, a company that has a reputation as one of the best in the country at creating theatre work outdoors.

The Glee Club, by local playwright Richard Cameron, will be staged in the town for the first time.

“Is the town ready for it? I 
don’t know – who knows if we 
can do it, but we have a team 
that is totally dedicated to it and we’re going to open the doors and give it our best shot.”

Coming soon: Highlights of the opening season at Cast

The new £22m venue is being billed as the “town’s cultural living room” and the flagship of what will become Doncaster’s civic and cultural quarter. Here are some of the many highlights on offer in the opening season which gets underway next month.

A Cast of Thousands: A spectacular explosion of performance and creativity taking place outside on the public square for the launch event. Friday, Sept 6, Sir Nigel Gresley Square, 6pm.

The Glee Club: A song-filled comedy and a cracker of a play charting the lives and heartaches of a group of miners from Ellington. Sept 6 to 21.

Rita Payne: Doncaster duo, a folk, blues and roots act with great tunes, a hint of darkness and a dash of humour. Saturday, Sept 21.

Clare Teal and the Big 
Band. Yorkshire’s very own Queen of Swing celebrates the music of her heroines, the leading lights from the golden days of the jazz and swing era. Sept 28.

Translunar Paradise: Award-winning international ensemble Theatre Ad Infinitum have travelled the globe with this critically acclaimed piece of theatre about life, death and enduring love. Oct 1.

Cinderella: Brand new version, written especially for Doncaster. Dec 5 to 23.

59 Minutes to Save Christmas. An interactive headphone journey around Cast. Saturday, December 14 to Monday, December 23.