Monday, June 17, 2013

A Theatre and its City

In the second of his missives from the 2013 Theatres Trust conference, Thriving Theatres, Conference Reporter Fin Kennedy hears from Executive Director at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Deborah Aydon.

Deborah is currently overseeing the redevelopment of the Everyman Theatre and told the Theatres Trust 2013 conference on 11 June about some of the strategies the theatre had deployed to gain widespread local support.


Deborah Aydon
Deborah began with a whistlestop tour through the history of the Everyman and Playhouse theatres - an alliance between an old Victorian music hall which became one of the UK's first repertory theatres, and a chapel, converted to a theatre in 1964, one mile away from each other. Their Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP) is a crucial component in their success - actor David Morrissey is an alumnus and returned to play Macbeth in the Everyman’s closing show. The company also has reach far beyond Liverpool, and their shows regularly tour, most recently Frank McGuinness's Matchbox which came down to London's Tricycle Theatre. The company has also tapped into Liverpool's rich history of local writing talent, such as Lizzie Nunnery’s The Swallowing Dark, which received five Off West End Award nominations or poet Roger McGough's three adaptations of Moliere, all of which toured nationally. As Deborah herself put it: “Everything we do is infused with our city, inspired by it and by its people. Nothing that we do is parochial.

The company is lucky to have a city council which is very supportive. Liverpool's Mayor recently argued that culture will be as important to the city's future as manufacturing was to its past. Culture is 'the rocket fuel for our economy', he said.

Outreach is a big part of how the Everyman and Playhouse have achieved widespread support. Deborah cited a project in Kirkdale with young men 'at risk' on the streets at night, in which the theatre's technical team trained young men in lighting design, and coached them in rigging an installation at the local recreation centre for use at their football matches. Liverpool Football Club watched their first match and were so impressed they offered free football coaching, which is still ongoing two years later. The theatres piloted a technical training programme with the young men and a video artist worked with the same group to turn the entire frontage of a local pub into a video animation. All 12 involved in the lighting project are now in either related employment or training and the technical training programme is now an annual strand of YEP.

The Everyman embarked on an ambitious redevelopment programme to overhaul the Everyman Theatre, a building that was dated and not really physically accessible. The motto for the project is 'An Everyman for Everyone'.

The journey to the new Everyman began with a finale for the old building, which took the form of a collection and sharing of memories (such as couples who had met there). The public were invited to write these onto luggage tags, which were displayed around the building. Thousands of people came to say goodbye to the old Everyman – simultaneously discovering why the redevelopment was needed. Many of these brought children, to introduce them to their theatre and express their hopes for the future. This drawing out of emotional connections created a feeling of ownership and belonging. Though the old building has now been demolished, 25,000 bricks were saved and used in the walls of the new theatre.
The old Everyman Theatre on Hope Street

The new design is democratic and inclusive, with every seat the same (no more seats vs. benches), with each close to the stage, and a rehearsal room and studio dedicated to youth and community work which has deliberately been placed right at the centre of the building. Reimagining the building as a creative and social hub aims to bring artists and audiences together – physically as much as metaphorically – by connecting the theatre’s social spaces. This includes opening up the old Everyman bistro, which has long been a bohemian hang-out for counter-cultural Liverpool. During the redevelopment, the theatre embraced a social media strategy by installing a ‘cranecam’ high above the building site, broadcasting online how the building was coming along, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The front of the theatre required installing some external screens to manage sunlight into the building - the architect, Steve Tompkins, took the opportunity to make a feature of this, and turned it into an art project which expresses the Everyman’s ethos. The 'portrait wall' is made of aluminium sheets have been etched with engravings of local Liverpool residents - not famous ones, but ordinary citizens, alive today - 105 of them in total. They range in age from an 86-year old to a new born baby. The Everyman invited them all to a party to get to know them and emphasise the fact that they are all now part of the Everyman’s story, and the Everyman part of theirs.

The fundraising campaign for the new theatre will also establish a talent fund to enrich the programme and create opportunities for their YEP members to go on to professional careers. The strong relationship with donors has meant they can move away from a focus on donations to fund bricks and mortar towards future activity, which also strengthens the emotional bond. Deborah looked up the etymology of the word 'philanthropy' and was delighted to discover that it meant 'love of humanity'. That seemed to sum up everything the Everyman does.

But the theatre's fundraising doesn't just come from wealthy patrons. Local citizens of ordinary means had also taken it on themselves to fundraise for the theatre through activities such as tea parties and sponsored mountain climbs. Deborah wasn't talking about large sums of money, but the larger amounts of goodwill and further sense of belonging which came with it were arguably more important. There are now over 1,000 of these citizen donors.

To capture what motivated the Everyman's audience to do this, the theatre collected their reasons on another series of luggage tags. One of Deborah's favourites read: 'Home is where the heart is, and our heart is in the Everyman'. It was written by a working-class Liverpudlian couple who had never thought theatre was for them, but who tried it out for the first time during Liverpool's City of Culture in 2008, and fell in love. They are now not only regular theatregoers, but regular donors to the Everyman too.

Young Everyman Playhouse is excited about opening the doors to their new space. They have already decided on its motto: 'This will be a place where impossibility is not an answer'.

The brand new Everyman Theatre is scheduled to open in 2014.

Read Fin's first Theatres Trust Conference report, on Ruth Mackenzie's opening address, here.

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