The region’s latest theatre has opened in time for Christmas. Lucy Oates goes behind the scenes at Beverley’s newest venue.
WHEN the renowned actor Vincent Regan first mooted the idea of establishing a theatre in his home town of Beverley, an army of volunteers immediately began working to turn his vision into a reality.
Regan is best known for his roles in Troy and Clash of the Titans and with the influential Hollywood star at the helm as the theatre’s director and Dame Judi Dench as its patron, the project picked up momentum last year when East Riding Council gave the green light for a rundown former Baptist chapel on Lords Roberts Road to be converted into a 200-seat theatre with café facilities.
With the backing of the local community, the result is a triumph for people power in the shape of the East Riding Theatre, which has just opened its doors with a production of A Christmas Carol. To ensure the project was finished on time, countless local businesses either gave their services free of charge or donated materials, and going forward, the theatre’s board – also made up of volunteers – can now count on the support of a network of more than 80 enthusiastic volunteers.
Project manager Sue Kirkman said: “The auditorium includes a gallery area where corporate customers can have drinks and events. There is also a café bar in the back chapel that was once used for Sunday school, where we hope to be able to stage live entertainment – it’s quite a big space.”
Even Sue, who has been involved with the project for three years and typically works a 40-hour week, is a volunteer. The fact that she gives up so much of her own time to carry out unpaid work is a measure of just how passionate she and her fellow volunteers are about the venue.
She laughs as she explains that her daughter put her forward for the role: “I’d just done an Open University degree and was thinking about what to do. My youngest daughter was going off to drama school and she started babysitting for Vincent Regan and his family. He told her his idea and she basically volunteered her mum!”
A quick telephone call from Regan was all it took to persuade Sue to put her skills to good use and she threw herself into the project: “I love it; I’m totally devoted to it and want it to work. Of course there have been days when it has been quite hard, but, mostly, it’s been very rewarding. I’ve got so much more confidence now about asking people for things – I just take the plunge.
“Now the theatre is open I’ll continue to work here on a voluntary basis as a manager for a year or so, just to get it on its feet. We don’t have the budget to employ people straight away. I think that, in all, I’ll end up doing about five years on a voluntary basis before I can retire.”
Sue is quick to highlight the contribution of a host of professionals from the local community who have provided their services free of charge, from a structural engineer, surveyor and architect to a PR consultant, local builders and a firm of accountants. “MKM Building Supplies have supplied materials for free, and so many experts have helped us along the way. A local logistics company even took a lorry up to the Lake District to collect some seating for us.
“We have a network of 80 volunteers on our books. They are our ambassadors and I’d say that around 60 of them are already actively involved in doing things. We can already see from the response of volunteers that they want to take some sort of ownership of this theatre. We’ve all waited for a long time for it to begin and the community has already contributed huge amounts of physical work and practical skills to the project.”
Raising the money to finance the building work was just the start. The team had a fundraising target of around £75,000, which is a fraction of what a big city theatre would cost to open, but a huge amount of money for a community group to raise.
“There was a point when we were struggling for cash. We had raised £25,000 to get the initial work off the ground, but there came a time when we needed to start buying things. When the builders left, we needed to create the lighting rig and build the stage, which was quite expensive. It is only a thrust stage, which comes out into the auditorium with the audience on three sides. We also wanted the café to look good so that people would start using the building and then come to see a show. Thankfully, lots of businesses have been offering us huge discounts, but they can’t do it for free.”
The theatre already has a growing band of members, who will receive advance notice of productions before tickets go on general sale, and a sponsor-a-seat scheme is on course to generate around £20,000, with many people opting to dedicate seats in memory of loved ones. Part of Sue’s role is to identify and apply for sources of grant funding to ease the theatre’s financial pressures.
The East Riding Theatre team’s overriding aim is to provide a venue where local residents and visitors to the area can enjoy world class theatre and music.
Sue said: “Beverley has been called a theatre town without a theatre. Like many people, Vincent Regan couldn’t understand why there was no theatre here. He has great connections in the world of theatre and will be the venue’s artistic director when it’s fully operational.
“Beverley also has lots of wonderful festivals and we hope to link up with them. I think there are many more big events that could be developed now that a dedicated venue is available.”
• A Christmas Carol, adapted by Vincent Regan and directed by Mike Friend, runs to January 3. Tickets are available at www.eastridingtheatre.co.uk.