‘A year ago, I couldn’t have looked you in the eye and said, ‘this is going to be OK’,’ says York Theatre Royal chief exec Tom Bird

Tom Bird: Looking forward to tonight’s reopening of York Theatre Royal after 15 months like no other

YORK Theatre Royal will re-open tonight after 427 days, but chief executive Tom Bird feared this day might never have come.

Aside from two preview performances of December’s Travelling Pantomime tour, the main house stage has been in Covid-enforced hibernation since March 14’s performance of Alone In Berlin.

In the ensuing months, shorn of 89 per cent of its annual income being generated through selling tickets and associated revenue streams, the Theatre Royal had to cut its permanent staff by one third – seven voluntary redundancies and nine staff made redundant – after extensive consultations against a grim national picture where an estimated 40 per cent of theatre workers have lost jobs over the past 15 months.

Last September too, the Theatre Royal’s divorce was announced from the neighbouring De Grey Rooms, home to the theatre’s leased rehearsal rooms, workshops, offices and below-stairs costume department, as well as weddings, parties, award ceremonies and performances in the glorious ballroom.

Had Tom ever thought that the pandemic might be the final curtain for the Theatre Royal, England’s longest-running theatre outside London?  “Yes, as early as last May, I started wondering. I remember it well because the weather was gorgeous, but the outlook was bleak, though it was at that stage that Arts Council England were brilliant, in that they moved very quickly to provide £160 million Emergency Funding to theatres like us,” he recalls.

Josh Benson: The comic turn in York Theatre Royal’s upturn with The Travelling Pantomime last December

The Theatre Royal received £196,493 to help to cover costs in the fallow months from last July to September 30. “The ACE grant was about ‘What do you need right now not to collapse?’,” said Tom at the time.

“But when 89 per cent of your income revolves around ticket sales, you’re looking at that situation thinking, ‘that’s 89 per cent of our revenue gone, a turnover of £4.5 million; what business survives that?’.”

What’s more, Tom and the theatre faced the problem of running an old, if recently refurbished, building that is both huge and hard to heat, “so much so that it costs £475,000 a year just to keep it open, without staffing, to cover heating, lighting, water and safety,” he reveals.

“At that point, we didn’t know that Culture Recovery Funding would be made available by the Government, though there was a lot of noise, and we didn’t know if the pantomime [Cinderella, in the Theatre Royal’s first collaboration with Evolution Productions] could go ahead.

“What we did was to get brave at that point, making big decisions, giving up the lease of De Grey House and the De Grey Rooms, going back into our old offices in the gorgeous, ramshackle Tate Wilkinson House.

“Then there’s the decision you never want to have to make: having to lose staff, and that decision still haunts me. But in a way, the need to make savings was pretty black and white; it wasn’t a case of looking to be a bit more efficient. We had to take steps now, and last summer was pretty tough.”

The Pop Up On The Patio festival stage on the York Theatre Royal terracing last August

A Pop Up On The Patio festival season on the theatre terracing ran from August 14 to 29, a positive step in showcasing York and Yorkshire talent, but through the huge glass panes of the Theatre Royal could be seen the dormant foyer, box office and closed doorways to the main house and Studio: out of reach and shrouded in uncertainty.

Once the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund was announced, the Theatre Royal was awarded £230,000 to assist the theatre until March 31, but the pandemic’s grip put paid to any chance of Cinderella going to the ball at the Theatre Royal.

“What picked us up was deciding to do the Travelling Pantomime that we took round York’s wards: it gave us something to focus on, not just thinking ‘is the Theatre Royal going to survive?’,” says Tom.

“It energised us all, and it was such a great show to do, but the truth is, a year ago, I couldn’t have looked you in the eye and said, ‘this is going to be OK’.

“We didn’t even know what was going to happen through that year ahead, but I have to say that the Yorkshire producing theatres have been brilliant. York, Hull [Hull Truck], Leeds [Playhouse], Scarborough [Stephen Joseph Theatre] and Sheffield [Sheffield Theatres] have got together each week on Zoom, which has been a really good case of peers supporting each other…

“…and we are where we are now, reopening to coincide with Step 3 of the roadmap. Love is in the air at the Theatre Royal!”

Clown time: James Lewis-Knight’s in rehearsal for Staying Connected, one of the Love Bites at York Theatre Royal tonight and tomorrow. Picture: Tom Arber

Tom is referring to The Love Season, already trailered in CharlesHutchPress [April 29 2021], that opens with Love Bites: two nights of two nights of letters from the heart tonight and tomorrow at 8pm that have both sold out.

The Love Season should have opened on St Valentine’s Day, February 14, but Lockdown 3 put yet another red line through diary plans. However, a second round of the Cultural Recovering Fund grants has put a £324,289 spring in the Theatre Royal’s step, coupled with the third stage of lockdown loosening from today.

Love Bites will turn the spotlight on the creativity of artists from in and around York, whether poets, performers, singers, dancers or digital artists, who have been commissioned to write love letters celebrating the return to live performances after the easing of the Government’s pandemic restrictions.

Introduced by Look North alumnus Harry Gration, Love Bites will explore the idea of love letters, dedicated to people, places, things, actions, occupations and more besides in five-minute specially commissioned bite-sized chunks.

The Love Season’s focus on human connection, the live experience and a sense of togetherness will embrace solo shows by stage and screen luminary Ralph Fiennes and Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh (The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…); a new Ben Brown political drama about writer Graham Greene and spy Kim Philby, A Splinter Of Ice, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, transposed to 1940s’ Hong Kong by writer Amy Ng and director Dadiow Lin.

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal for T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

The number one talking point is Ralph Fiennes’s Theatre Royal debut, in six performances from July 26 to 31, directing himself in the world-premiere tour of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets: a solo theatre adaptation of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, a set of poems first published together in 1943 on the themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and spirituality, war and mortality.

Tom says: “Ralph is rehearsing in London, opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath, from May 25 and then touring. We’re so chuffed to have Ralph coming to York. We can’t believe it!

“We’re thrilled that Ralph’s show became a possibility for us, and it’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time. Let’s say it, it’s rare for an actor of his profile and standing to do a regional tour, but he’s seen that he can help to save some incredibly important producing houses, like this one, by doing a tour – and it’s not an act of charity; it’s an important and really exciting piece of work.”

Performances in The Love Season will be presented to socially distanced audiences, adhering to the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences with a reduced capacity of 344, but should Step 4 of the roadmap roll-out go ahead as planned on June 21, there is scope for more seats to go on sale for shows later in the season. Over to you, Mr Johnson and the Indian Variant fly in the ointment.

For full details of The Love Season, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Tickets can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; on 01904 623568, Monday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm, and in person, Thursday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm.

In the name of love: York Theatre Royal’s reopening season

York Theatre Royal boosted by £324,289 in round two of Cultural Recovery Fund

York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird: “Delighted and relieved that our application for funds was successful”

YORK Theatre Royal is to receive £324,289 from the second round of the Government’s  Cultural Recovery Fund.

The St Leonard’s Place theatre is among more than 2,700 recipients to benefit from this tranche of awards, announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on Friday, from the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund. 

“This award is critical to York Theatre Royal and will support the re-opening of the theatre in May with The Love Season,” says the theatre’s announcement. 

“We’re delighted and relieved that our application for funds was successful,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird. “This award ensures that York Theatre Royal can look ahead to the future with confidence and a renewed sense of purpose as it helps us to play our role in supporting arts for the community in York.

“I would call this funding more about recovery and reopening, whereas the last round was still ‘emergency’ funding.”

Tom continued: “It’s brilliant news for us, and we’re obviously very chuffed as this £324,289 grant allows us to support The Love Season, which we’ll be announcing on April 7. We can’t wait to welcome our audiences back to the theatre in May with an exciting and varied programme of work that celebrates what we’ve all been missing this past year; human connection, the live experience, and a sense of togetherness.”

York Theatre Royal’s artwork for The Love Season, to be announced on April 7

More than £300 million has been awarded to thousands of cultural organisations across the country in this round of support from the Culture Recovery Fund as a “much-needed helping hand for organisations transitioning back to normal in the months ahead”.

This comes on top of more than £800 million in grants and loans awarded already to support almost 3,800 cinemas, performance venues, museums, heritage sites and other cultural organisations dealing with the immediate challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The funding awarded on Friday is drawn from a £400 million pot that was held back last year to ensure the Culture Recovery Fund could continue to help organisations in need as the public health picture changed. The funding has been awarded by Arts Council England, as well as Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute.

In the initial surge of the Covid-19 crisis, Arts Council England (ACE) set up a £160 million Emergency Response Fund package, with nearly 90 per cent coming from the National Lottery, for organisations and individuals needing support.

York Theatre Royal received £196,493 from ACE’s emergency fund to help to cover costs in the fallow months from last July to September 30. “The ACE grant was about ‘What do you need right now not to collapse?’,” said Tom at the time.

Julie Hesmondhalgh in The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…, part of The Love Season at York Theatre Royal, starting next month

Last October, the Theatre Royal was awarded £230,000 from the Cultural Recovery Fund to assist the theatre until March 31.

While the emergency and recovery funding has been vital, it has not prevented the Theatre Royal from having to cut its permanent staff by one third – seven voluntary redundancies and nine staff made redundant – last September after extensive consultations, as well as cutting all ties with the neighbouring De Grey Rooms.

“You have to bear in mind that normally we have a £4.5 million turnover each year, with 89 per cent of our annual income being generated through selling tickets [combined with associated revenue streams, such as the bars and café],” says Tom.

“The problem with an old building that’s so huge and hard to heat is that it costs £475,000 a year just to keep it open, without staffing, to cover heating, lighting, water and safety.”

York Theatre Royal – the longest-running theatre in England outside London – hosted two socially distanced preview performances of The Travelling Pantomime last December but otherwise the main-house and Studio stages have been dark since March 15 last year.  

CharlesHutchPress will cover next Wednesday’s announcement of The Love Season – socially distanced and Covid-safe – with an interview with Tom Bird to follow. At the core of the season will be Coronation Street and Broadchurch alumnus Julie Hesmondhalgh starring in her husband Ian Kershaw’s one-woman show The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…from June 1 to 5.