Yorkshire's theatres, galleries, and cinemas innovate to boost access to arts after pandemic

Mikron Theatre shows are not like most stage productions. For a start the cast arrives at each venue via narrowboat, at the interval you are as likely to be sold a tea towel as an ice cream and audience members who don’t feel like paying are just as welcome as those that do.

Producer Pete Toon at the Mikron Theatre Co based in Marsden Mechanics Hall.
Producer Pete Toon at the Mikron Theatre Co based in Marsden Mechanics Hall.

“I know it’s not a normal business model, but it works for us and has done since the company was launched 49 years ago,” says producer Pete Toon. “Our raison d’etre is taking theatre to audiences who may not be able to access traditional venues, which is why we have always operated on a ‘pay as you feel basis’.

“Relaxed performances designed for people with autism or dementia are relatively new for most theatres, but every single one of our shows is relaxed. For many in our audience, a Mikron Show is the only theatre they see all year; that’s what made cancelling our tour last year so hard.”

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Based in Marsden, Mikron will go back on the road next month with two new productions. However, the uncertainty caused by successive lockdowns meant they decided to book only outdoor spaces and as a result 50 of their usual 130 venues will again miss out.

“It was a difficult decision, but we had to be realistic,” adds Mr Toon. “We are also asking people to book in advance so we can regulate numbers, but the one thing we haven’t done is set a minimum ticket price because we want people to pay what they can afford.

“To compensate we hold raffles, we sell our own merchandise and by doing that it means we attract a much more diverse audience than many theatre companies.”

The arts sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. It is estimated that a quarter of the 200,000 creative freelancers will not return to the industry, which saw a £74bn loss of revenue last year.

There are also concerns that even when venues reopen audiences figure won’t bounce back immediately with research by the Audience Agency concluding the pandemic has increased existing inequalities when it comes to accessing the arts.

According to the report, a combination of financial hardship and health concerns means low income families, ethnic minorities and those with disabilities are now even less likely to pay to visit theatres, galleries and cinemas than they were before the pandemic hit.

Oliver Mantell, the organisation’s director of policy research, said: “Perhaps unsurprisingly those groups who struggled to access the arts before COVID look set to find it even more difficult as we go forward.

“It matters because the more diverse the audience, the more diverse art gets made and if we want the arts to truly reflect society that it can’t be something which attracts just a niche group.

“There is no easy solution, but many organisations have been on a steep learning curve over the last 12 months, particularly in terms of streaming. While digital events have not necessarily resulted in a radically more diverse audience it has resulted in slightly higher general engagement.”

Doncaster’s Cast theatre is already embracing a new blended model of live and streamed events and recently commissioned associate artist Ryan Harston to produce Separation, a series of web films shot in South Yorkshire using local talent.

“A theatre is nothing without people, but it is a very different world we are stepping into,” says executive director Deborah Rees. “Around 70 per cent of our new season consists of shows rescheduled from 2020 for which we had already sold tickets for. We won’t really be able to gauge the impact on audiences until next year, but we do know that we have to be proactive in reaching out to people - that’s why we were so keen to commission Ryan.

“The web series will be interactive, allowing people to choose their own endings and it’s a really exciting development for us. Streamed events will never replace live theatre, but we need to give people options because he arts will be instrumental in helping people recover from the pandemic.”

While the relaxation of lockdown restrictions will likely see an influx of visitors to tourist hotspots like York, many attractions are conscious that they also need to encourage the return of their homegrown audience.

It’s in part why York Art Gallery, which benefited from the £1.57bn Cultural Recovery Fund - one of 429 organisations in the county to share a £100m pot - has decided to suspend its normal entrance fees which were introduced in 2015 amid some controversy following a major expansion project. Instead, it will only charge for special exhibitions such as Grayson Perry The Pre-Therapy Years which will mark its reopening on May 28.

“The entrance fee was originally introduced because we had seen a steep decline in funding,” says Reyahn King, chief executive of York Museums Trust, which runs the gallery along with four other venues. “However, the new exhibition spaces which were opened as a result of the expansion mean we can stage bigger special exhibitions and it felt like the right time to look again at our business model.

“We want the people who live in the city to feel the gallery belongs to them. By waiving the normal entrance fees it will hopefully encourage families to use the venue more and we hope any shortfall will be made-up by revenue from the shop and cafe.

“York has so much culture and we definitely feel a responsibility to find ways to share it; now we just have to wait and see what happens.”

Cinemas are similarly holding their breath to see whether audiences, many of whom have grown used to watching the latest releases at home, will return in the same numbers as before the pandemic.

However, Wendy Cook, head of cinema at Hyde Park Picture House, believes that for the independent sector at least it is a good time to take risks. The Leeds cinema is currently undergoing a major restoration project, but while it won’t reopen until next year it has launched an On the Road programme to take films to new venues and audiences.

“Covid accelerated an existing trend towards home streaming,” says Wendy. “For some people that’s a scary thought, but I think it’s exciting.

“Financial considerations are normally top of the list when it comes to running a cinema, but in the last year how we reach audiences and how we make them feel safe became the main priorities.

“It will definitely influence our thinking going forward and we have already started to ask ourselves why we don’t offer captioning on all the films we screen and how we can make our programme more accessible to those with disabilities or from different parts of the city.

“Throughout this last year I have watched a lot of films at home, but it’s hard not to be distracted by everything else that is going on. I watch films to escape, to be challenged and to lose myself for a couple of hours. You can only really do that in the cinema. I can’t wait to get back there and I know that I am not alone.”