TODAY is the 85th anniversary of the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York, aptly on #LoveTheatreDay.
The theatre was opened on Monday, November 18 1935 by Mr Seebohm Rowntree, then chairman of Rowntree & Co Limited, with the aim of “providing a hall which may be a fitting centre for those recreational and educational activities that make for a full and happy life”.
Under Lockdown 2 restrictions, the Haxby Road community theatre cannot hold an actual birthday party, but its social media channels will be full of stories, anecdotes and photographs.
Supporters and volunteers have come together to share their memories and their hopes for the future of the Art Deco venue.
Those wanting to join in the conversations should email any memories to email@example.com or contribute via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
In addition to the birthday celebrations, the JoRo is highlighting the support and encouragement of its three patrons: David Bradley, Ian Kelsey and Frances Simon.
Bradley, known to many older York residents from his time with the Rowntree Youth Theatre and from playing Jesus in the 1976 York Mystery Plays, has become a familiar face nationwide from his vast number of stage, film and television appearances over many decades. Latterly, those credits take in the Harry Potter franchise, Game Of Thrones and Broadchurch.
Although David, 78, has been a patron of the JoRo for “some time”, the 85th anniversary is the first time that the theatre has announced his patronage formally and celebrated his backing.
In support of the theatre’s Raise The Roof fundraising campaign, David said: “The Joseph Rowntree Theatre has been a vital part of the city for so many years. I know from personal experience that it has provided opportunities for so many young people, and I will always be grateful for that. I fully support the theatre’s appeal and wish it all the best.”
The second, newly appointed patron is York-born actor Ian Kelsey, who honed his skills in many shows produced by Rowntree Youth Theatre. After a stint as an apprentice coach builder at the York railway carriage works, the acting bug drove him to follow his dreams by studying at Guildford School of Acting.
He has since been a regular on the nation’s TV screens in multiple drama series, from Blue Murder and Coronation Street to Doctors, Casualty and Emmerdale.
The third patron is actress and drama teacher Frances Simon, who moved to York with her family from London 14 years ago. She studied at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, in London, and played the Angel Gabriel in the 2012 York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens.
Frances has been a great supporter of the JoRo, attending many shows and teaching many youngsters who have appeared on the theatre’s stage.
A passionate advocate of the benefits of theatre to young people, she is the director of Frances Simon Speech and Drama Coaching; teaches speech and drama at St Peter’s School, York, and is a LAMDA coach at York Theatre Royal and Stagecoach Performing Arts.
While the JoRo is looking back and toasting the successes of the past 85 years today, it must look to the future too. Hence the launch of the Raise The Roof campaign to raise £90,000 to fund the shortfall in savings available to meet the costs of repairing the roofs after more than eight decades without needing any such major repairs.
During the course of this campaign, new volunteer Hannah Wakelam has taken on the role of the JoRo’s first Young Ambassador.
Musical theatre performer Hannah, 20, so far has helped to raise hundreds of pounds by initiating fundraising projects, most notably organising this autumn’s online contest, Yorkshire’s Got Talent, won by York College actor-musician Ed Atkin, 17, in October. Now she is in the process of selling tickets for a grand Christmas raffle.
The JoRo trustees hope more young people will follow Hannah’s lead by coming forward to play their part, inspired by the opportunities that the theatre gives them, both on and off the stage.
Why did you take on the role of chair for Theatre @41, Joe?
“As we were approaching last year’s annual general meeting, our incumbent chair, Jim Welsman, decided to step down and I agreed to take on the chair as a temporary role. Very quickly it became clear that there was a big job to do with the charity from an operational and developmental point of view.
“Theatre has always been my passion and I realised that I had an opportunity to lead a team and make a difference to this incredible building and charity.”
What does Monkgate mean to you?
“Creativity. Every experience I’ve had with Monkgate has been a creative one, from the very first moment I stepped foot in there with the University of York St John, to all the rehearsals I’ve been part of and then finally as part of the board of trustees. Creativity has been the one constant that remains.”
York theatre-goers will know you from major roles in myriad productions but do you have any experience of theatre behind the scenes too?
“Surprisingly, I have lots of experience behind the scenes. I’ve stage-managed productions and directed many musicals and plays. My favourite musical was The Phantom Of The Opera, which I staged in 2014 – my favourite show and a great success.
“I’ve also worked professionally at York Theatre Royal and Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, in Halifax, in marketing and administration, so I have lots of experience and knowledge working for charitable organisations.
“Most notably, I worked at the Theatre Royal during their capital renovation project and some of their other major events, such as The Railway Children at the National Railway Museum, The York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens and their season in the round – I helped with the production of shows and front of house.
“For a long time, theatre was my whole life, having studied performance theatre at York St John, concentrating on live art and acting/directing.”
What challenges have you faced since taking on the role of chair?
“The biggest challenge is running the charity with a full-time job too. The charity in itself has a heavy workload which impacts on people’s time. This is why it’s really important that we build our volunteer community so they can be part of the developments and to ensure that the charity is running effectively.”
How did the board of trustees come together and how is it working?
“With a lot of hard work. Three of us were existing members of the previous board and everyone else was a new recruit.
“Because the profile of Theatre@41 is not as big as we would like, there was a challenge getting people to, firstly, know who we are and, secondly, understand why or how they could make a difference. Through a lot of networking, we have finally found a cohort of people who, day after day, make a difference to this charity.”
Who is serving on the board?
“Myself as chair, looking after all the governance of the charity and leading the board to achieve their short and long-term goals.
“Joanna Hird and Susannah Baines are joint secretaries; Joanna is responsible for administration and Susannah is responsible for our membership, though they do cross over a lot!
“Philip Barton is our treasurer, Jack Hooper is our marketing, branding and communications trustee; Alan Park is responsible for fundraising and business development; Kaeli Wishart is a new addition, responsible for our volunteer strategy, and Emma Godivala, of York Gin, is a trustee too.”
What has the new board achieved already to fill you with pride?
“When you’re part of a project, it’s really hard to see the developments that you’ve made. So, when we wrote the annual report this year, I was astounded by how much we’ve achieved in such a short time. I’m proud of everything that we do as a board.
“Most of all, I’m proud of the team we have become and how we continue to operate. Achieving something of this magnitude is impossible with just one person. It can’t be done. You have to have an effective and engaged team… which we do.”
Game Of Thrones star David Bradley, comedian Rosie Jones, actors Karen Henthorn and John McArdle, former chairman Jim Welsman and founder John Cooper’s daughter, Felicity, became patrons in May. What do you hope they will bring to Theatre @41?
“I think the primary purpose of high-profile patrons is about raising our own profile. Part of our five-year strategy is to build the awareness of our charity and building. We face a disadvantage as we’re physically hidden from passers-by and then, secondly, we aren’t at the top of people’s minds when it comes to theatre spaces in York.
“We don’t want to be number one; this isn’t about stealing the audience from other venues, but we do want to be in people’s consideration when they’re thinking about theatre experiences, either as an audience member or as a hirer.
“We’re hoping that having patrons who are not only high profile but actively involved in our theatre will help raise our profile and attract people into our building.”
What do you want to achieve in the next year?
“Most importantly, we hope to re-open successfully and start to build our hires again to ensure the financial stability of the charity. That is our first goal.
“After that, we’re focusing on creating a comprehensive pack of governing policies to ensure that we’re operationally effective; building a bank of volunteers to help us with the day-to-day running of the charity and venue; building a brand identity to make sure our name lasts long into the future; looking at our artistic offer and raising funds for our roof. These are just a few of the many tasks we have to achieve.”
What would you like the brand identity of Theatre @41 Monkgate to be?
“We want our identity to exhibit creativity. Our tagline is ‘Just Add Imagination’ and our identity should reflect that. However, we also want it to incorporate our history. We shouldn’t forget where we have come from and we have a great story to tell.”
How has the Covid-19 lockdown affected your plans?
“Aside from our theatre being closed, lockdown has, in a strange way, let us to concentrate on a lot of activities that we were struggling to complete when our building was open. So, actually, in one way it has positively affected our plans and given us the breathing space we needed to carry on with building the foundations of this incredible charity.”
What are the practical questions facing Theatre @41 in relation to re-opening?
“I think that the lack of direction from the Government on re-opening is slightly frustrating as it isn’t allowing for any future planning. Though we completely understand these are unprecedented times and I’m sure there is a lot the Government are working through.
“Operationally, there is probably less impact for our building due to the flexibility of seating and the fact it has a natural one-way system we can implement very quickly.
“I think our biggest challenge will be having hirers back in the building. At the moment, as we understand, amateur performance is still not advised to go ahead, which means that for the foreseeable future we will have no income. Like other businesses and charities though, we must have a think about how we adapt to this in the new world.”
Once the Government says “Yes” to indoor performances, is there any viable possibility of re-opening with reduced-capacity social distancing?
“We haven’t done the calculations as yet. However, working on an average audience size, I don’t foresee there being any issue with seating arrangements.”
But is it more practical to stay closed until Theatre @41 can re-open at full capacity?
“Not really. We really need to be open to continue bringing in money to our charity. We don’t receive any regular funding from bodies to help with our operating costs, so being open would help with our cash flow.”
Given the need to address the upkeep of the building, what makes Theatre @41 worth fighting for?
“No other theatre in York offers what we offer. When a hirer enters our building, they’re allowed to take over the whole space and have full creative control, from rehearsal rooms to the black box studio.
“Back in 2016 and 2018 we had The Guild Of Misrule bring Alexander Flanagan-Wright’s immersive production of The Great Gatsby to us. They took over the entire building and every room was transformed into a 1920s’ setting so that the audience stepped back in time as soon as they came through the front door.
“We’re also the perfect size for local companies to stage new or daring shows and not take too much of a financial risk. Our space allows companies to produce well-known pieces in new and exciting ways and, finally, we’re exactly what York is lacking: a Fringe venue.
“Possibilities are endless in our building, whereas in other theatres there may be a lot more restriction.”
What does the board see as the priority with the building’s maintenance?
“The biggest priority is to fix the roof. There are other tasks to undertake but our biggest priority is the roof, for which we have already started fundraising.”
How is the proposal to mark the legacy of 41 Monkgate founder John Cooper progressing?
“We obviously unveiled a plaque a few years ago and had a brown sign erected outside our building for the John Cooper Studio. The next step is to include the memory of John and immortalise him in the fabric of our brand identity and story-telling.”
Amid the uncertainty brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, why is the arts scene so important in York?
“In a city so small it absolutely amazes me that we can house five major theatres and one large concert venue, plus support all of the many different groups that produce in York.
“We are so lucky that we have such a diverse group of arts-makers and they are all, in the majority, successful. From large-scale musicals to Shakespeare and everything in between, you’d be hard pushed to find another place like this outside of London.
“However, there are a few things that aren’t catered for that I would like to experiment with and expand the horizons in York. Watch this space!”
YORK teenage musical theatre performer Hannah Wakelam is launching the Yorkshire’s Got Talent Virtual Contest to boost the Joseph Rowntree Theatre’s Raise The Roof campaign, with Wicked’s Elphaba among the judges.
Hannah, 19, who has appeared many times on the JoRo stage, has signed up three VIP guests to judge the event: Wicked star Laura Pick, West End regular and cruise ship vocal captain Nathan Lodge and Ripon vocal coach Amelia Urukalo.
Entries are open from now until August 1 for a contest with a £100 prize. “All types of performers are encouraged to enter and to show off what they can do,” says Hannah. “Whether it’s singing, dancing, playing a musical instrument, performing a circus act, the list is endless.”
The cost of entries is a minimum donation of £5 to the Raise The Roof appeal and no age restrictions apply. “Because of lockdown rules, entrants will be asked to submit a short video of themselves performing their acts,” says Hannah. “The winner will receive £100 and their online performances will be seen right across the Yorkshire area.”
The Haxby Road theatre needs to find £90,000 to go towards roof repairs to the Art Deco building to ensure the JoRo will be around for future generations of Yorkshire performers.
Graham Mitchell, the theatre’s events and fundraising director, says: “Hannah got in touch with us the very day that our appeal was launched and offered to do a fundraiser within the overall campaign.
“Already we’ve had lots of people express an interest in the contest and now that the judges have been announced, we expect levels of interest to take off.”
Heading up the panel is Laura Pick, from Wakefield, who was flying high as Elphaba in Wicked in the West End until the Covid-19 lockdown stopped her Defying Gravity.
Fellow judge Nathan Lodge, originally from York and no stranger to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, has many West End credits, complemented by his career as a vocal captain on cruise ships.
The third judge, vocal coach Amelia Urukalo, has experience aplenty in judging talent competitions and runs the Upstage Academy performing arts studio in Ripon.
The Yorkshire area is teeming with performing talent, not least on the Rowntree Theatre stage: a training ground and launchpad for many professional acting careers, such as Harry Potter and Broadchurch actor David Bradley, Emmerdale and Casualty actor Ian Kelsey and West End musical theatre performer Scott Garnham.
Nathan says: “I really believe that the industry is full of exceptionally talented people who started out in Yorkshire and I can’t wait to see what the future of talent from home looks like.”
The JoRo launched its Raise The Roof campaign last month by creating an online music video, put together “virtually” during lockdown. Last Saturday morning, an online fitness class raised almost £300 for the campaign.
The total stands at £2,673, more than half of the £5,000 target for this early stage of the overall £90,000 appeal. Almost 100 people have donated so far, testament to the campaign gathering momentum.
Dan Shrimpton, chair of trustees of the Joseph Rowntree Theatre charity, says: “We launched the campaign with several of our own team performing a music video, then we held an online fitness class hosted by Hannah King, which lots of our supporters took part in.
“Yorkshire’s Got Talent is the third event in a chain of many fundraisers that we already have in the pipeline. We know this competition will be hugely popular as it’s open to everyone in the Yorkshire region, whether they’ve performed at our venue or not. It’s simply a celebration of local talent, all the while supporting a great community cause.”
To launch the Raise The Roof campaign, the JoRo has set up a Just Giving page and is encouraging people to “donate even just the amount of a takeaway coffee”. To do so, go to justgiving.com/campaign/Raise-the-Roof.
GAME Of Thrones, Afterlife and Harry Potter actor David Bradley is among a host of new patrons pledging their support to Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.
York-born Bradley, 78, who also starred in Broadchurch and played Jesus Christ in the 1976 York Mystery Plays, is joined by Bridlington-born Rosie Jones, a comedian, actress and scriptwriter, from 8 Out Of 10 Cats and Mock The Week, who has cerebral palsy, and New York playwright/composer Stephen Dolginoff, whose shows Thrill Me: The Leopold And Loeb Story and Monster Makers played in York in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Further names to wade in with their backing are actors Karen Henthorn, from the National Theatre’s War Horse, In The Flesh and The Trouble With Maggie Cole, and John McArdle, from Brookside, Emmerdale and Frantic Assembly’s Things I Know To Be True at York Theatre Royal in November 2017.
The board also welcomes Felicity Cooper, daughter of the theatre’s founder, the late John Cooper, and former chairman Jim Welsman, who worked tirelessly within the York arts scene, first as chairman of York Musical Theatre Company, then as founder and director of the York New Musical Festival, before retiring from the Monkgate theatre’s board last year.
“Our new patrons have agreed to ensure this intimate venue not only survives but thrives through the challenges of Covid-19 and beyond,” says Joe Wawrzyniak, who succeeded Jim in the chairman’s post last autumn.
“The charity’s board of trustees approached them as part of an exciting development plan for Theatre @41, enlisting a host of patrons to get people talking about this hidden gem as we make ambitious plans for post-lockdown.”
Theatre @41 opened in 1998, under the inspirational leadership of John Cooper, who transformed the Victiorian building from scratch into a black-box theatre. Now, the venue, with rehearsal rooms and a dance studio to boot, plays host to York Stage Musicals, Pick Me Up Theatre, Once Seen Theatre Company, York Shakespeare Project and Rigmarole Theatre, among others.
Alexander Flanagan Wright’s cult-hit immersive jazz-age production of The Great Gatsby had a swell time there too, staged by The Guild Of Misrule in winter 2016 and 2018.
“Theatre @41 gives York an intimate performance space alongside bigger venues such as the York Theatre Royal and Grand Opera House, in much the same way London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and Southwark Playhouse are as vital to the capital’s arts scene as the big West End theatres,” says Joe.
“Looking ahead, we have a great vision for Theatre@41 and we want to shout it from the rafters. What better way to get started than to involve a high-profile group of patrons who are all passionate about the arts? Everyone is keen to get involved: we’re very lucky to have this wonderful new group on board.”
Joe adds: “We’re home to Nik Briggs’s York Stage School, which encourages young people to get involved in performance; Robert Readman’s Pick Me Up Theatre, who regularly present new writing and premieres, and Once Seen Theatre Company, who specialise in working with adults with learning and physical disabilities. We can now boast patrons who represent some of the areas of the arts that we work in.
“It’s our mission to keep the vibrant, inclusive spirit of Theatre@41 going, and for this fabulous, versatile venue to continue to grow. Our new patrons will be there to help us all the way.”