Latest news - Leeds Heritage Theatres celebrates first birthday
26/08/2021 Leeds Heritage Theatres celebrates first birthday
As Leeds Heritage Theatres celebrates it’s first birthday, we reflect on the year that was and what lies ahead.
Why go ahead with the brand relaunch during a pandemic?
We knew, more than ever – whilst our buildings stood empty and our future genuinely uncertain – that we had to make people aware what Leeds and Yorkshire stood to lose if our venues closed due to COVID-19.
Whilst we had been trading for more than 30 years as Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House Ltd., we knew that the name was not befitting of our company, and the role our venues and people play within the Leeds arts scene. We needed a collective identity that encapsulated our people, venues, heritage and future, and would raise awareness, both regionally and nationally, of the breadth and quality of our shows/screenings and educational function.
What did lockdown mean for Leeds Heritage Theatres?
When we closed our doors, as well as ensuring the health and wellbeing of our staff, our priority was to liaise with producers and promoters to reschedule performances at both The Grand and Varieties – if this was not possible, we sadly had to cancel them. Unfortunately, we are just a small cog in a big wheel when it comes to touring shows. The logistics of moving even just one artist, let alone a West End blockbuster like The Book of Mormon, is colossal. Thankfully, we have such great and trusted relationships with the producers/promoters that we have managed to maintain the majority of our original programme from 2019.
Rescheduling and cancelling did, however, create a gargantuan task for our Communications and Box Office teams who had to inform, move, refund or issue credit notes to literally tens of thousands of customers – all without the luxury of our usual Box Office systems. We had to purchase laptops for the majority to be able to work remotely, but this posed internet and access problems. We also had no phone lines at the beginning for customers to be able to contact us – all communication was done via email, and our website and social media channels, which should be straightforward in the digital age, however there’s a surprising number of patrons without email addresses!
Away from the shows, we proceeded with the redevelopment of Hyde Park Picture House as planned, but had to delay the works. The ‘On The Road’ campaign, which the team had worked so hard to organise throughout redevelopment, had to be pulled. In lieu, they ran an online campaign called #HydeParkPicks that showcased daily film recommendations from staff and volunteers at the Picture House.
Our Learning Team had to try maintaining some normality for our young people, some of whom are particularly vulnerable. The importance of having regular communication can’t be understated and we recognised that we had a vital role to play in ensuring that our participants could access creative activities in a safe space. Through the wonder of online tools, sessions for our Youth Theatre continued weekly, with members using their pandemic journeys as inspiration for their creative work.
It wasn’t only our young people we had to keep in contact with, we had a huge responsibility to keep our staff informed and motivated, whether working from home or furloughed. We sent weekly updates via email with information about the Company’s position, whilst also including helpful hints and tips for maintaining a healthy mind, body and soul. We also engaged in LOTS of video calls; much like the rest of the UK, we are all suffering from Zoom fatigue!
Financially, whilst prudent fiscal planning pre-pandemic meant our ‘liquidity’ remained strong (our ability to pay the bills on a day-to-day basis etc), our financial stability was critical. We were incredibly privileged to receive funding from the Government, Arts Council England, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which helped us enormously to safeguard our heritage buildings, and plan for reopening, including in investing in additional signage and PPE.
What has reopening looked like? And what does the future hold?
After much delay and false starts, The Grand and Varieties are both open with ongoing COVID-safety measures in place.
The Varieties first reopened her doors on Friday 9 October 2021 for a programme of films presented in collaboration with Hype Park but was forced to close in November when Leeds was declared a Tier 3 city. She finally reopened on May 17 2022 for live performance and screenings. Everybody’s favourite Rock ‘n’ Roll panto will return in November with a brand-new production of Beauty and the Beast. What’s on at City Varieties.
As a 1500 capacity venue, we always knew that The Grand would be one of the last venues to reopen in the country, finally opening her doors on Thursday 17 June 2021 with a socially distanced run of Northern Ballet’s Swan Lake. Despite the ongoing challenges still facing the theatre, including ongoing rescheduling/cancelling of some productions, and the possible introduction of COVID passports, The Grand has a packed programme for 2021-22 of the very best in West End and Broadway musicals and dramas, stand-up comedy, dance and music, plus runs by resident companies Northern Ballet and Opera North. What’s on at Leeds Grand Theatre.
At Hyde Park, work on The Picture House Project finally got under way in April this year, thanks to a grant from the Capital Kickstart Fund as part of the DCMS Cultural Recovery Fund and ongoing support from the National Lottery Fund. The project will see the Grade II listed building undergo essential repair and restoration work, alongside the creation of new accessible facilities including a brand new second screen that will provide more flexibility in programming; helping us to work with new audiences and build stronger links in our local communities. We have an exciting programme of activities and engagement lined up to run alongside the project, including On The Road and Hiding in Plain Sight.
After more than a year of online sessions, members of our Youth Theatre returned to our venues in May in bubbles of 15, whilst adhering to strict COVID-safety guidelines. Against all the odds, on Saturday 31 July, the Youth Theatre, directed by Lizi Patch, newly appointed Artistic Director Young People’s Theatre, put on a Summer Sharing at The Varieties. The evening of original writing, songs and choreography documented and celebrated everything they had achieved through the pandemic. Find out how you can take part.
After a successful online masterclass, Leeds Actors In Training (LAIT) will relaunch in autumn 2021. LAIT is a studio-based vocational programme for young people, aged 18-25 years, to challenge and develop their performance skills alongside industry-leading professionals. Read more about LAIT.
Our Learning team continue to deliver our charitable aims and participate in city-wide conversations that place young people at the heart of the region’s art and culture movement. This year, with the appointment of Lizi and new staff members, we will continue to evolve the current programme of work on offer, including our training provision of placements and apprenticeships.
All our staff are finally back working and most have returned to our venues. Whilst some staff had worked at The Grand and Varieties throughout lockdown to ensure their upkeep – heritage buildings take a lot of looking after! – it took an incredible amount of work to ensure our venues were fit for all staff to return safely, also recognising that it would be mentally challenging for some. As well as offering pastoral support, additional training and improved communication channels, we invested in a new app called My Health Advantage that provides mental health and wellbeing support.
Our venues are nothing without our people. And as our business returns to some normality, we continue to look for new team members. For current and future vacancies click here. What part will you play?
And finally, whilst The Grand and Varieties have reopened, recouping lost earnings and safeguarding our future is an ongoing challenge. Our team are currently in the process of writing a third bid that will hopefully see us receive additional monetary support from the Culture Recovery Fund, which we hope will provide a financial cushion whilst audience confidence returns, plus provide sustainability for the future.