Yorkshire's theatres keeping a light on for culture in times of trouble

A defining moment is being wrought across the nation, as its cultural fabric is rewritten at a racing pace.

Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. Image: Tony Bartholomew

When theatres first closed there came a moment of fear, amid a dawning realisation that for many their very way of life was to change.

The shift is bigger, when it comes to cultural cohesion. And for Yorkshire’s artistic directors, at sea as the tide turns, that is what matters.

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What we witness in this interlude, they add, is what will one day define us.

Paul Robinson, artistic director and joint chief executive of Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. Image: Tony Bartholomew

“In more indulged times, we can forget what theatre is for,” said Paul Robinson, artistic director at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.

“Culture is intimately sewn into our way of life. It’s about people.

“We are leaving our lights on, as a tiny gesture.”

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Alan Lane, artistic Director at Slung Low Theatre Company, in Holbeck. Picture Tony Johnson

March 16 marked a stark day for the nation’s theatres when Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stay away.

Holbeck’s Slung Low theatre company, housed in the oldest social club in Britain, sees many of its customers arrive every Sunday for a pint of mild.

The directors, acutely aware that many customers were aged over 75, decided to close their doors early, pledging to pay everyone from cleaners to bar staff.

Then artistic director Alan Lane started posting letters, offering to collect food.

The Slung Low Theatre company in Holbeck is now overseeing dozens of volunteers as they distribute food and essentials to the elderly and vulnerable. Image: Tony Johnson

What began with the theatre’s immediate neighbours has since grown. Directors are now volunteer guardians of the city wards of Beeston and Holbeck, leading from the Leeds City Council community helpline.

Every day, 40 volunteers join the effort, to help the vulnerable and elderly. The bar staff, guaranteed their salaries regardless, all came back.

They pick up parcels, and pies, for those in isolation. Prescriptions, food deliveries, laundry. Sometimes they just sit and listen.

“We are a theatre company, but we can’t make theatre,” said Mr Lane. “We are putting ourselves to use.”

Acclaimed playwright John Godber, who pulled his show early when it became clear the virus outbreak was growing. Image: Tony Johnson

Moments of joy

Mr Lane’s smile is apparent as he recounts the jollity of an 83-year-old man who threatened him with a walking stick this week, after he mistakenly added a decade to his age.

He has found many joys to be had, but there have been sobering moments as well.

The elderly man with no gas, who has been eating sardines for two weeks, the family in isolation unable to do their laundry as they are without a washing machine.

And the elderly woman, frightened to leave her home to cash her pension, whose shoulders had sagged with relief when she finally held it in her hand.

“We do seem to have turned a corner, and not in a good way,” Mr Lane says. “We were laughing with them, just a few days ago. Now we’re not. They are frantic.

Alan Lane, artistic director at Slung Low. Image: Simon Hulme

“We are able, one or two times a day, to create a situation where we can bring a little bit of relief. We will carry on as long as we are healthy.”

Donations of food have come from the Real Junk Food project, supermarkets, and Leeds Council.

“These are people who have never been in the system,” says Mr Lane. “That is causing them a lot of pain, emotionally.

“We’ve got the logistical skills, the manpower and a van. We are finding that, as artists, what is just as important is our ability to listen, to talk.”


Acclaimed playwright John Godber’s Angels of the North premiered at Wakefield’s Theatre Royal this year.

A play about northern communities left behind in last year’s General Election, it had all but sold out in Beverley and was on its way to the West End.

Knowing it was only a matter of time, and not wanting to put people at risk, he too had pulled the show early.

The hit he has taken is irrelevant, he says, in the face of such a cost to so many, and the selflessness of NHS staff.

They are nimble, he adds, quick to react and when the time comes, to return.

But he does wonder what will come from these dark times, which will certainly see theatre redefined.

“I’ve done rather a lot of plays, and those plays are all over the world, but the world has suspended theatre,” he says.

“I’m not sure what any of us will want to see come August,” he adds.

“These fellows have got to keep the lights on. We need these venues to be going. We need life to continue.

“In the words of Sir Alan Ayckbourn, ‘we need good schools, and good hospitals, and good theatres, so that well-educated, healthy people have somewhere to go at night’.”

Difficult decisions

In Scarborough, joint chief executives Mr Robinson and Caroline Routh had gone from scenario planning at the Stephen Joseph Theatre to suddenly closed.

The hardest task, and the most urgent, was in deciding who to furlough.

Looking at contracted hours, they had tried to define what could put a person in a difficult position financially.

But then they came to realise that one man, working just 12 hours, was reliant on that income to cover a mortgage.

“That was really arresting to realise,” says Mr Robinson.

The theatre, with some reserves, has agreed to match usual salaries.

“Up here, and because the cost of living is relatively low, those kind of hours make the difference between someone being able to make a living.

“If someone loses a job in the theatre up here, there aren’t any others to go to.

“It does put the cultural offer into perspective. In Scarborough, which is quite different to London, we are the cultural amp. We are it.”

There is a community kitchen in Scarborough, formed in recent days by cafe owners to ensure a decent meal is available to anyone that needs it.

Many of the theatre’s staff are now volunteering. Others, calling up ticket holders to cancel plays, are spending hours on the phone as a listening ear.

The closure of the theatre had come as a blow, said Mr Robinson, but right now the country’s culture is being re-written. In the behaviours of society, in adapting to a new normal.

The arts’ products that will be born from that is yet to be defined. What matters today, he adds, is being a part of it.

“That is the cultural thing. That’s what we need to be doing now.

“I really hope people hold onto this, when we get back to normal,” he adds. “It’s a different type of nourishment.”

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