With the endless double entendres and “it’s behind you” jokes, pantos are expressly designed to offer some old-fashioned festive cheer. For smaller theatres they can also be a much needed money-spinner.
At the Bradford Playhouse, Aladdin premiered on 13 December – it’s the theatre owner’s first pantomime. “One of the key business plans was to have a professional panto,” says co-owner and managing director Megan Murray, who took over the theatre two years ago. “The script is really funny and local children in the area are involved. It’s good to see the building so full of life.”
Theatregoing is on the rise in the UK with more than 1,300 theatre venues in the country, according to Theatres Trust, with total box office sales hitting £470m in 2016 – up from £455m in 2015 [pdf]. However, for small theatres facing high rents and business rates and operating without big advertising budgets, it’s an extremely challenging business.
“Outside of London, the model is slightly less punishing for companies because the rents are lower,” says Alistair Smith, editor of the Stage newspaper. “It’s a market that’s not driven by audience demand, but by the demand for space by artists who want to create work in these spaces.”
John Topliff, co-owner of the Three Minute Theatre (3MT) in Manchester, knows how tough it can be. “We’re stupid people,” he says. “We get people telling us: ‘It’s your dream’ – but no, unless your dream is to work seven days a week for seven years … We’ve not had a wage yet; we draw money from it. We’re getting there. We just made a profit this year.”
Topliff and his wife, Gina Topliff Frost, were in showbusiness for 30 years before opening a shop in one of Manchester’s indoor markets, Afflecks, seven years ago. The shop initially sold props and costumes they’d acquired during their careers as performers, but they soon had the idea to run three-minute plays there. The shows proved so popular they moved into bigger premises and opened a bar.
The duo started producing their own plays, and the current roster features everything from comedy and poetry nights to album launches from local musicians. For Topliff, the main focus is survival. “Just paying the rent,” he says. “And really, being better than the competition. The main challenge is getting people through the door.”
The thrill of discovering new talent can help take the sting out of the long hours and financial hardship. “You can get really good plays that would never see the light of day in the funded sector, and then they might move to a bigger theatre,” he says.
Theatres are often run as charities or, as in the case of the Bradford Playhouse, community interest companies (limited companies that exist to benefit the community). Topliff is operating 3MT as a commercial enterprise. “If you have the freedom to decide what you want to do, you can make good work,” he says. Still, it’s a tight ship. “If we have an album launch, it can pay the rent for a week. One hand washes the other.”
At the Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate, the stage only measures 3m x 2m (10ft x 6.5ft) and the auditorium squeezes in just 50 people. The miniature size of the theatre, which is a former coach house, didn’t put off its owners, husband-and-wife Alex and Sara Radcliffe, when they discovered it was on the market earlier this year. It offers an eclectic lineup, including a Monday night film club, comedy gigs and jazz and blues nights.
“We like to take creative risks and push boundaries and take on challenging stuff that’s a bit out there,” says Alex. In August, the venue hosted a musical by local artist Tommy Poppers called Cosmic Dilation in which he charted sexual abuse he’d experienced and his recovery. Risks aside, the duo are keen to appeal to a wide demographic. “We do a youth workshop once a week, and my parents live in a care home nearby and we want to make theatre accessible to them.”
Alex admits that there’s not much financial gain. Currently run as a company, they’re considering whether the Tom Thumb would be more sustainable as a charity or if it were to receive funding. “We’re not doing it for the money,” he says. “It’s a labour of love. We’re never going to be millionaires. We rely on bar sales. Financially it’s hard.”
Running a theatre can mean doing everything from the cleaning to the marketing. “To be honest, it’s just me and my wife doing all the jobs,” he says. “Even thought we’re the smallest theatre in the UK, there’s still the same amount of jobs to be done.” But all the hard graft hasn’t killed off the magic. “I think what’s so exciting is that we never thought it was possible.”
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