From panto to tragedy to staging a comeback – a year in the life of a theatre venue!
A guest blog originally written for Trident Hospitality by our Managing Director, Julie Rennison
Three years into taking over a former council town hall as a charity arts venue, our team at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall had just staged our second fully professional panto Aladdin. We’d worked with the local FE art college and schools to produce countless Chinese lanterns and create a Laundry Bar, broken our own box office records and had a show we could be proud of.
We had year ahead full of bookings for arts, private events and corporate clients. We couldn’t fit in wedding enquiries as every weekend was full. We’d taken on the venue at £150k per year loss and through imagination, hard work and community spirit were about to break even.
We staged our final events, BENefit Gig, a youth charity rock night for teenage musicians and a stage school production. Then with lockdown came cancellations and postponements in their hundreds. All staff apart from myself as Managing Director were furloughed and two of our core team of 5 roles made redundant.
A friend of the Town Hall approached us to say that the food bank collection centre had been closed due to lack of volunteers, could we help? Eight months on we have collected over £35,000 worth of food for local food banks. The love spread and we’ve since hosted a school uniform and clothing bank and a pop-up barber, where members of the public and businesses can donate haircuts to food bank users.
Meanwhile with no shows to book or promote, I spent the spring and summer deep cleaning and learning maintenance. I worked hard on grant applications and it filled me with hope writing the bids. Every word illustrated what a fine and precious building was at risk and also the possibilities which, given this unusual breathing space, were clearer than ever.
In May, volunteers started to turn up, armed with paintbrushes, steamers and incredible skills… a videographer and IT whizzkid, a mother and daughter venue consultancy team, an event technician who could turn his hand to any project and wanted to start with our heating system.
All of a sudden I had a team, and when restrictions lifted, more of my Front of House volunteers returned, excited by the feeling of rebirth in the air. These people proved that Sutton Coldfield Town Hall was loved even without the glamour of shows.
We were introduced to Kevan and Martin at Trident Hospitality and a plan hatched to relaunch ourselves as a meeting and event venue. Next, news of a successful bid from the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, £30,000 towards a project to ‘Pivot and Prosper’ into the world of weddings. This allowed us to purchase digital signage, smart tills, streaming facilities, coffee and pop up bars, decoration and a marketing plan for weddings.
2021 and beyond
Although weddings and meetings are at the heart of our way forward, we are an arts and heritage charity and it is vital that everything we do has the result of providing culture for the people of North Birmingham and ultimately to restore this Edwardian wonder. It was essential therefore that we were successful in receiving the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund.
Focusing on producing low capacity shows in 2021 and saving jobs, we rethought our business plan and planned a perfect balance – meetings through the week and weddings during most weekends of the summer season, with community and professional theatre shows and dances throughout the rest of the year. Thankfully, we were successful and will be able to put £100,000 into supporting the arts and local staffing in 2021.
This is still our plan, as far off as return to theatre always seems to be. Meanwhile between lockdowns we are now home to dance schools who’ve lost their premises 5 days a week and continue our work with the NHS Blood Service. We evolve each week depending on the news and the need.
Our sales team is back, preparing our offer for new customers. The decorating is progressing and the design and inspiration is a real team effort. We’ve also had a week as a film set for a major feature film, highlight of the year!
Our message to new customers next year will be that it will be a joy to welcome their events and conferences, and in return, they will be helping a charity and community theatre that obstinately ‘leaves a light on’ through thick and thin!