Curtain up on Grand plans as new boss takes to stage

Ruth Eastwood, new chief executive at Blackpool's Grand Theatre.

Ruth Eastwood, new chief executive at Blackpool's Grand Theatre.

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Ruth Eastwood doesn’t just care about theatre, she lives and breathes it.

Ever since watching a touring production of The Canterbury Tales at primary school, it’s all she has been interested in.

Which means The Grand, where Eastwood has been appointed chief executive, should be in safe hands.

Eastwood, who replaces the long-serving Neil Thomson, has worked at theatres all over the place – Salisbury, Colchester, Leicester, Poole, Darlington.

Now it’s Blackpool, a town that, if you watch certain TV programmes (I’m naming no names ... 999: What’s Your Emergency?), doesn’t always come across well.

That doesn’t wash with Eastwood. “I was in Colchester last year, which has to be one of the most sedate towns you’ll ever go to. Anyway, they did a documentary there and the locals were mortified,” she said.

“But that’s TV. I didn’t see the programme about Blackpool, but it wouldn’t be TV if they went along to a place and said actually it’s really nice and nothing ever happens.

“I think we’re all big enough to know fly-on-the-wall shows are quite contrived.

“Since I arrived in Blackpool I’ve been delighted to see what an amazing lively fun place it is.”

As soon as she was old enough, Eastwood got a job as an usherette at her local theatre, then worked behind the bar. She’s been in the business ever since.

One of the challenges she faces at The Grand is to turn the theatre into a place people regularly flock.

Everyone knows what a terrific venue it is. But it doesn’t always get the support it deserves and it sometimes proves difficult to get punters through the door.

As outgoing chief exec Thompson admitted, when it comes to finance it will be a huge success if the venue breaks even this year.

Eastwood acknowledges that but argues: “There are plenty of examples of theatres around the country of a similar ilk to The Grand that are successful, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t be.

“I’ve not been here long and I need to look, listen and understand what is going on here to evaluate that. But a lot of people have a lot of faith in The Grand and I don’t think they’d have that faith if they didn’t think it couldn’t reach its potential.”

With an Arts Council grant earmarked to further develop the theatre, Eastwood has plenty on her hands.

The work she is doing, though, probably won’t be fully seen until further down the line – certainly in terms of what people get to see.

“One of the toughest things about starting any new theatre job is that the programme is already pretty much set up until the middle of next year,” she added.

“That is always the case, so people won’t see an impact of my programming until the autumn of next year.

“But I am already loving my role here. I know all about the history of The Grand, all the hard work the local people have put in to bring it back to life – and people are still working hard to keep it going.

“I think that’s a great advert for Blackpool and for the people who clearly recognise something valuable in their town.

“The Grand is such a special place. It feels magic even when there’s no show on and it’s empty, and I am delighted to be working here.”