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Chris Blythe in a suit smiling at the camera with Amy Webb dressed in a black witch outfit as Elphaba from Wicked in front of the Wicked press board.

A Fond Farewell to CEO Chris Blythe

As Chris Blythe prepares to retire from his role as CEO of Leeds Heritage Theatres, we asked him some questions about his time with us.

Written by Amy Sanderson


Early days and highlights

Tell us about your early memories as you took up the role.

It sounds funny now as I know The Grand so well but an over-riding memory of those first weeks was worrying that I wouldn’t be able to find my way to my office on the sixth floor. I didn’t want people to think “Who is this bloke, he can’t even find his desk without help!”

The other memory from that time is the weight of expectation I felt (probably self-imposed). The position was a step up for me – the first time I had been at the very top of an organisation. That feeling of when something is going wrong and it’s complicated and you say, “Oh I’ll speak to my ‘boss’ about this, they will get it sorted” – I was in charge and it was me who had to sort it. It took a long time to adapt to that and I don’t think it ever really goes away.

You’ve been with Leeds Heritage Theatres for eight years. What are some of your highlights during that time?

It’s been a true rollercoaster with real ups and downs along the way but these are a few moments which have stuck with me.

The first is the Youth Theatre. Before working here, my experience of what the arts and creativity can bring to people was probably quite limited. I thought it was a ‘nice thing to do’ but wouldn’t have necessarily thought it could be life-changing. Whilst watching a rehearsal of our Youth Theatre’s performance of Little Shop of Horrors in 2019, I was struck by knowing or seeing directly the emotional, physical or mental challenges the young people were facing and how much they were learning, growing and being supported through taking part in this experience. It made me reflect on some of my own family’s experiences and how this might have helped. It made me realise that the work of our Learning & Engagement team and that which similar teams in many arts organisations across the country do is so vital in supporting young people. This became even more apparent during COVID when young people described the sessions we were able to deliver online as a ‘life-line’ during a period of isolation and confusion for so many.

The youth theatre cast of Little Shop of Horrors wearing red dresses and posing for a photo around a boy holding up a plant puppet.

A production photo from the youth theatre performing Little Shop Of Horrors in 2019.

The second is two moments at City Varieties. People often told me that one of the amazing things about The Varieties is the intimacy you feel with a performer in a room full of people but I hadn’t experienced it until, as a cricket fan, I went to watch Jonathan Agnew and felt like he was chatting just to me despite it being a full house. The second was even more amazing – when Sting performed on stage to an invited audience of press ahead of The Last Ship coming to The Grand. I’ve been a Sting fan for years and felt an enormous privilege that I was able to be there as part of my role in this incredible venue.

Sting sat on a stool at City Varieties playing guitar on stage in front of banners saying The Last Ship.

Sting at the City Varieties Music Hall launch event for The Last Ship in February 2018. Credit Tony Johnson.

The final highlight I’ll share here is the transformation of Hyde Park Picture House. As a child, I spent hours making models and so loved the model that the architects of the Picture House Project produced where the pieces came apart and you could see how the new design fit together. To see that model come to life last June when The Picture House re-opened was just amazing and a real highlight for me.

The outside of Hyde Park Picture House.

Hyde Park Picture House after re-opening in 2023. Credit Aaron Cawood.

Challenges and memories

On the flip side, what have been your scariest or darkest moments?

In 2016 we had to build a new roof at Leeds Grand Theatre to support the original one and ensure the safety and security of the beautiful and ornate plaster ceiling in the auditorium. With considerable planning and effort, the work was done whilst the theatre remained open but with monitoring controls in place to ensure the safety of everyone involved. One of these was monitoring the wind speed and my wife will testify to my obsession with an app on my phone which was monitoring the weather. It was my decision as to whether or not we were safe to open and, believe me, that’s a weighty decision when you’ve got 1000+ people in a building. Thankfully the weather was mostly on our side and we only had to close for three nights during the entire period.

I am sure no one will be surprised that the other truly scary and dark time was COVID. It was unprecedented for everyone in the world. Having to close the doors and send everyone home, I honestly felt that we may never open them again and that it would be on my watch that these astonishing venues would never open again. I think the darkest point for me was a few months into COVID – probably October 2020. We’d pretty much exhausted all our money and were waiting for an email from the Arts Council and DCMS to tell us whether or not we had been successful in a Culture Recovery Fund grant. We’d prepared two emails – one which said we’d be able to keep going and one which said that was it, we were done. It was that close. We were all on edge and when we got the news that we’d been successful, the Senior Leadership Team hopped on a team call and pretty much all of us cried. The company was saved by that grant and the subsequent two that followed.

Chris Blythe holding up a sheet of paper.

Chris Blythe delivering a presentation. Credit Ant Robling.

And finally, what do you think your abiding memory will be?

Everyone knows I love the buildings and I have a fierce amount of pride in the fact that the work we’ve done and continue to do is making them structurally sound and physically secure. We’re only ever the guardians of these buildings but we’ll hand them on to future generations in a better state than we found them.

But, what I will remember above all else, is the wonderfully talented people I’ve worked with. However beautiful the buildings are, they are only alive with people. They come to life when staff come in and they light up when an audience is there. That’s what I’ll remember the most.

Smiling audience members applauding from the Circle level at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Smiling audience members at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Chris Blythe in a suit smiling at the camera with Amy Webb dressed in a black witch outfit as Elphaba from Wicked in front of the Wicked press board.

Chris Blythe with Amy Webb as Elphaba at the Wicked press event. Credit Ant Robling.

A group of Front of House staff in uniform with their hands in the air in front of giant balloons spelling out 140.

Front of House Staff at the 140th Gala Event.