From flop to full house

ONCE riddled with debt and with its reputation in tatters, the management of Ipswich's Wolsey Theatre had become a drama in itself and the theatre was forced to close.

ONCE riddled with debt and with its reputation in tatters, the management of Ipswich's Wolsey Theatre had become a drama in itself and the theatre was forced to close.

Today the New Wolsey Theatre is celebrating it's fifth birthday with a new team driving it forward. HELEN JOHNS looks at how the theatre has gone from flop to full house.

WHEN the doors closed on the former Wolsey Theatre for the final time in 1999, our county town temporarily lost one of its major arts venues.

Thousands of pounds in debt, the failing theatre shut amid controversy and disappointment.

More than £190,000 of debt had built up and management were left with no other option than to declare the theatre a failure. Two years later, a new team took the reigns and had a dream to build it into a successful and vibrant theatre again.

Five years on, the renamed New Wolsey Theatre has today reached its first big landmark anniversary.

Most Read

With ticket sales at an all-time high, and a growing reputation for its blend of innovative and challenging productions mixed with favourite classics, and a few one night shows, the New Wolsey has become a big name in the local and regional theatre world.

Chief executive Sarah Holmes and artistic director Peter Rowe were the pair with responsibility for changing the fortunes of the theatre - a task they can now admit was not an easy one.

“The theatre had been closed for two years by the time we arrived,” said Sarah.

“We took up roles in September 2000 and had five months to clear the building, set up a new business programme and new staffing - and set up a new season, get a team for a show and rehearse it.”

But before they could do anything, the new team had to clear the theatre of any remnants of its previous occupants, which meant everything from clearing hundreds of costumes left stored on the stage, dealing with old paperwork, to washing up the coffee mugs left abandoned on desks.

“The front of house also needed not just a lick of paint but remodelling too,” added Sarah.

“We started going for a lot of magnolia everywhere and someone said 'let's have a bit of orange', so she got some tester pots and started putting bits of colour on the walls and that's how our corporate colours were born - there was no consultation or focus group!”

With the pressure on, there was no room for backing down or giving up when the going got tough.

“One night I sat in the auditorium on my own and went from 'this is so exciting' to 'how on earth are we going to do this?'” said Sarah.

As a team at home, as well as at work, both Peter and Sarah have built up impressive backgrounds in theatre. Sarah used to be at the helm of the Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Wales, while Peter has written and directed shows there, as well as being artistic director at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre and completing freelance work at several other prestigious venues.

Despite the massive task ahead of them, the theatre was completed and ready in time for performances of its first show as the New Wolsey, Sweeney Todd, which became a complete sell-out - eventually.

“I remember the first two audiences being quite tough. I think they were a bit like 'come on then, show us what you can do'. It wasn't hostile but it certainly wasn't warm,” said Peter.

“There was a feeling that all this time we'd worked so hard and here were people being a bit lukewarm. “But that was only the first couple of nights, ultimately word got out that things were alright and we were doing a good job.”

Sweeney Todd was five years ago this month, and even for the critics there is no denying the New Wolsey has gone from strength to strength. It has started building an impressive reputation for the quality drama, as well as for being brave enough to bring new, innovative and quality productions.

The New Wolsey champions collaborative projects and its seasons always include shows that have been produced in conjunction with other theatres or companies.

It is also part of a group of theatres who work together to promote the opportunities for black writers and actors and to appeal to black audiences.

A key part of the New Wolsey's aims is to bring audiences in from across every sector of the community and it aims to schedule shows that will have a broad appeal.

So far, that policy is working and of the names currently on the theatre's mailing list, 70 per cent are new additions to the list they inherited.

“From the early days to now I can sit downstairs and watch people arrive who don't know where the bar or toilets are - they are clearly new and that is great to see,” said Sarah.

But getting the balance is important, and Peter said it is vital the theatre is seen as a place for everyone, not a campaigning venue with a politically correct message.

“Watching the process of new people coming in has been great, and that is what we wanted,” he said.

“The range of diverse work is what we wanted to do, but we also wanted to avoid the curse of being seen as right on or troopers, we've just on with it and said 'here's a piece of theatre and it just happens to be a black storyline' and I think that's our strength.

“We get very different audiences in for different shows but there is some overlap. The more mixed the audience is in terms of colour and background the more we like it because is is more representative of the people in the town.”

The theatre's current season shows just what a range of theatre people can expect. After starting with a Gilbert and Sullivan show, opera and family comedy, the season has so far seen an evening of jazz music, a play based on characters from Shakespeare plays and an evening of North Indian Kathak dance.

Other highlights include trumpet jazz, a drama challenging prejudice within black communities, stand-up comedy, a hip hop dance show, classic drama in Moby Dick and Arthur Miller's The Price, Noel Coward's Private Lives, Chekhov's Three Sisters and a new comedy from John Godber - famous for Bouncers.

“You actually have to read our brochure,” said Sarah. “You can't just pick it up and see everything, and I think that's a challenge for people.”

Getting audiences to leave their cosy homes for the evening is a big task, said Peter.

“We want to get people to be brave and give new shows a chance. There is a lot of pull on people with what to do in their own time now, people like just sitting at home. People spend a lot of time at home doing things on their own - with personal computers, and personal stereos and music players - but I think there's a growing craving to be part of group events and to become part of a collective.”

Five years on Sarah and Peter can afford to breathe a sigh of relief, but the battle to bring in new audiences won't slow down just yet. Sarah said: “People still say they didn't know we'd reopened, or worse is if they do know and say they haven't got round to coming yet. I just say you don't know what you've missed in the last five years.”

STORAGE space is so tight at the theatre, that hundreds of costumes used by the New Wolsey are kept at a former bomb store in Bentwaters.

Many costumes were found covering the stage at the theatre five years ago, and while several have been sent away, they are a useful resource for the venue.

Name: Peter Rowe

Age: 49

Family: Partner Sarah and two teenage children.

Occupation: Artistic director

Favourite show: Sugar

Least favourite show: A Family Affair

Ambition: To take shows from the New Wolsey Theatre on tour, nationally and internationally.

Name: Sarah Holmes

Age: 52

Family: Partner Peter and two teenage children

Occupation: Chief executive

Favourite show: Whatever is current at New Wolsey!

Least favourite show: The Mouse Trap

Ambition: To continue to produce and promote the best possible theatre at the New Wolsey.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter