SUMMER THEATRE: The Grand central

MY STORY        Ruth Eastwood is the chief executive of one of the great theatres in the country, The Grand Theatre, Blackpool, where it has dominated the seaside resort. This summer, the grand is marching into the town

 

How are you doing that, and why?

We’ve joined forces with LeftCoast, our Creative People and Places team, because Michael Trainor (artistic director of LeftCoast) and I share a passion to put this town on the artistic map. Blackpool is rather charmlessly deemed a cold spot for arts consumption and participation. Together we wanted to do something that would make people sit up and take notice, by providing the kind of experience that “doesn’t happen around here”.

As part of our strategy we decided to co-commission Tristan Sharp’s dreamthinkspeak with LIFT to recreate Absent in the Grade II* listed Winter Gardens. This is not something we could do in a traditional theatre space. Absent is a journey, where audiences move in small groups along a maze of rooms and corridors that inexplicably transform before their very eyes, taking them into parts of the building not normally open to the public. Mixing film, theatre, architecture and vast model installations with a haunting soundtrack, audiences enter a magical, kaleidoscopic world that shifts between Blackpool’s past, present and future to create a beautiful and unforgettable experience.

I also believe that the arts should make a discernible economic impact in a town like ours. This event is very special, made for and with the people of Blackpool. This year we are spending £300,000 of our £680,000 Arts Council Ambition for Excellence grant here in our town. Tristan and his core team of artists have moved to Blackpool and are creating the show right here, renting space, buying materials, employing local people and working with more than 250 local participants.

Blackpool has changed indelibly since the Grand was built in 1894 and has experienced a decline recently. Is that being reversed?

Although the post war boom days are over, Blackpool still has a strong commercial economy and it remains a town where fortunes can be made and lost. And, boasting 12 million visitors a year, it’s still Britain’s most popular seaside resort. However, levels of poverty and deprivation amongst its residents are high, many of its schools are in special measures and health and social challenges put pressure on resources.

The long summer seasons of variety shows playing twice nightly for three months may be over, but that’s as much to do with the changing face of popular entertainment as it is with changes in Blackpool. To me, increasing people’s expectations through exciting and ambitious arts experiences is part of building civic pride and ambition in the town: challenging and changing people’s perceptions.

You have a long experience in managing venues and have a reputation of being a transition expert – at the Curve, Leicester, and turning Poole Arts Centre in to Lighthouse – and have been a consultant. The Grand is now known as the National Theatre of Variety – is that a transition?
Not really. The Grand has always been a theatre presenting a huge range of work from traditional variety shows, musicals, drama and even early film screenings. If there has been a transition recently it’s been one of re-balancing the art, the audiences and the organisation while respecting the theatre’s important history as a variety house and a heritage asset. We are funded as an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation to be part of the national network of dance houses and we’ve recently expanded that remit to include physical theatre and, with this Ambition grant, into site- specific work.

The Grand is Frank Matcham’s masterpiece, listed Grade II*, but it is 120 years old. How constraining is the design to programming for 21st century audiences?
The biggest challenges we face are how to meet the increasing demands and expectations, not only of audiences but of producers too. Shows are becoming heavier and more technically complex. We have a 1:24 raked stage and a counter- weighted hemp flying system. And our get-in takes place down a narrow alley off a pedestrianised area. Needless to say, my team are experienced banksmen!

The population of Blackpool changes dramatically between winter and summer. How do you programme for that – can you fill a 1,000-seat theatre all year round?

Over the last three years we’ve expanded the programme both in terms of volume and variety. We’ve also invested heavily in our community and education programme, working closely with Blackpool Council in schools and colleges and developing extensive programmes with disadvantaged groups. It is becoming more and more apparent, through the data we collect, that these activities are feeding into the box office. This year we’ve sold 162,000 tickets – that’s 30,000 more than last year, so we must be doing something right.

Making theatres financially viable these days often involves them in becoming 18-hour community centres as well as evening performance venues. Can you do that with a theatre like the Grand?

I don’t think we can do that with the main theatre but our recent refurbishment has created spaces where activities can go on throughout the day. Although, actually, the need doesn’t all lie in the town centre. So, as part of Blackpool’s Cultural Education Hub, funded through Blackpool Council, we offer a programme of work for young people in spaces – community centres, galleries, libraries, parks – across the town. And, because the Grand has been at the heart of the town for long, it might not be able to be a community centre but it certainly is a centre for our community.

Blackpool is a special place, but does the concept of a Northern Powerhouse have any relevance there?

The Northern Powerhouse has the potential to make a huge impact on the imbalance between London and the North but it’s the major cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds – that will be the main beneficiaries. However, with a vibrant metropolitan centre the ripples do move out to outlying areas. Don’t forget that Blackpool and the towns of the Fylde Coast were created as playgrounds for the northern powerhouse of the 19th century and, with improved communication today, there will be huge opportunities for Blackpool and the Grand.

What has been your favourite show there since you arrived?
DV8’s John. I consider it a triumph to bring more than 500 people to see this astounding and sometimes shocking work. It created powerful reactions and stimulated huge critical debate. Audiences were blown away by it. And, amazingly, I managed to put on a show with full-frontal male nudity, sodomy, rape and murder on my stage without the local rag batting an eyelid!

But, of course, I’m sure that Absent will hit the number 1 spot very soon!

Absent takes place three times over the summer: 20-15 August, 12-16 September, 25-29 September, 12 noon to 9.45pm daily. Book online at www. wintergardenshotel.co.uk or call 01253 743344.

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