Over the last 12 months there have been some superb shows at The Grand Theatre. Problem is, many of you probably didn’t see them.
For those who haven’t been – and shame on you if you haven’t – The Grand is gorgeous.
A Grade II-listed theatre built by famed architect Frank Matcham in 1894, it is beautifully ornate and widely recognised as one of the best in the land.
One recent production which sticks in my mind is Birdsong.
It was a phenomenally successful book. The BBC adapted it for television. And the play was utterly brilliant.
Yet when it was performed in Blackpool there were only a handful of people in the audience.
It must have been soul-destroying not only for the actors on stage but for The Grand bosses, for this is the problem they face – how do they get local people to the theatre?
Last year there was a reshuffle at the top.
Long-serving chief exec Neil Thomson decided to step down and Ruth Eastwood, fresh from working at various theatres around the country, took over.
So it is now her problem to grapple with – how to get people through the door.
But you get the feeling that Eastwood, a 51-year-old with an infectious enthusiasm for what she does, is capable of doing it.
Not least because she sounds a very interesting person.
“When I turned 40 I decided I ought to do some things I’ve never done before so I went to a football match,” she tells me.
“It was Bournmemouth v Tranmere. One team wore red, the other yellow, and the grass was green. In the interval we had Bovril. It was an interesting experience but not one I’ll be repeating.
“I also went to bingo and I thought bingo was quite good but you couldn’t really talk to each other because you had to keep looking at your numbers to see whether you were winning or not, so I haven’t really taken to bingo.
“I did some other things that I found quite interesting and I continue to do them, though I’m not gong to tell you what they are!
“But the point is there are so many different things out there and what we at The Grand have to do is quite simply let local people know we’re here.
“We have to keep talking to them, invite them to come and have a go, and they might like it. Some of them might not, but that’s cool – we as people are a diverse and interesting bunch who have different tastes and expectations
“But as long as we make what we do affordable and let people know what an amazing facility they have on their doorstep, then of course we can get people here.”
Don’t get the impression things are too bleak.
The theatre is far from struggling. It has plenty of sell-out nights and audience figures are good.
But things could always be better, and it is an ongoing fight to make a night out at the theatre an attractive proposition in an area officially listed as one of the most deprived in the country.
As one example of new initiatives, Eastwood points to the fact that 38 out of 40 Blackpool schools performed on The Grand’s stage last year.
“We are trying to catch them young enough to get a taste for it,” she said. “If you’ve never experienced theatre, how do you know you are not going to like it?”
She describes how her love began.
She came from a background where art wasn’t really seen as important.
“Then one day, at my comprehensive school in Watford, they took us all into the hall and we watched a theatre company do a production of The Canterbury Tales,” she said.
“They were swinging on a play-frame, sticking their bottoms out of the window ... it was absolutely hilarious and completely magic. I was 11. I went home and told my mum what had happened and how exciting it was, and she let me join the Saturday group at the local theatre, the Watford Palace.
“I’m the first person in my family to go to college and have a job in the arts but it wouldn’t have happened if my comprehensive school hadn’t done that.
“And I think it is our job to give people the opportunity to light that flame. You won’t light it in everybody because some people will be completely passionate about something else, like model railways or hockey. But you’ve got to give people the chance.”
Eastwood has been in charge at The Grand now for eight months. The staff speak highly about her, so too do visiting producers and directors.
She says that when she was employed there was “a feeling that we (The Grand) had not only slightly lost our way but were lost in the mix of what Blackpool is”.
In other words, they needed to have a rethink about what shows they put on. In a nutshell, that little rethink means there is more emphasis on local people than tourists.
“We want to be the theatre for the people of Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre because we are here all year round,” she explains. “It is great there is a summer season and we love to welcome visitors, but 75 per cent of our year is about being the theatre for the region.
“We need to try, as we move into the future, to have some distinctive things that you could really only see in a theatre of our size. Because when Matcham built it ... look at the front of the building and the pictures on the ceiling. He built it for art, music and drama. And so I thought we should go back to those roots.”
The venue already has Arts Council funding for a dance programme that it is hoping to extend to visual and physical theatre.
It is also hooked up with an organisation called Left Coast, which is financially helping The Grand’s efforts to help engage people from Blackpool and Wyre in the arts.
The summer season this year is, for the first time in ages, going to be different.
Gone is the old-style, long-running show. Instead there will be short, sharp runs, including a show Eastwood describes as “an extraordinary piece of theatre” (to be revealed next week).
“So we are being more like an inland theatre and booking shows for shorter runs, because unless it’s something like Mamma Mia! – which is an international brand of the highest calibre – sustaining 10-12 weeks nowadays isn’t something that you see happen, not just in Blackpool but anywhere except for the West End,” she said.
Mamma Mia!, of course, is on all summer down the road at the Opera House in the Winter Gardens.
Some might view that as brutal competition for The Grand. I mean how can they compete with one of the biggest shows in the world? Eastwood, perhaps not surprisingly, see it differently.
“It is great for us, fantastic,” she chirps. “We could never put that show on, it is huge.
“But it is exactly what we want. If you look at other towns with entertainment offers, like Manchester, where you’ve got the Palace and The Exchange and the Lowry down the road – that’s what you want.
“It’s like antique shops. They say they really thrive if there is more than one because people choose – and that’s exactly the same with the arts. If you have a choice of things to do then you as a customer and audience member are likely to get into the habit and start shopping around.”
She continued: “Mamma Mia! is a great show and believe me, I’ll be buying my ticket.
“Blackpool is a fantastic place to offer something for everyone
“The Opera House can do mega stuff that I could never do here. That’s the game – the game is to have plenty of strengths.
“Our strength is that we know when our theatre is at its best. It only has limited stage space, but it is a beautiful and perfectly formed space.
“We’re not going to be able to bring ginormous shows in. But when the stalls and circle are packed here, that’s a really great night out.”
Eastwood wants The Grand to be unique, to stage productions you won’t find anywhere else on the Fylde. Among many shows coming to Blackpool this year are Avenue Q (a Broadway Tony award-winning musical, July 1-5), Jason Manford (May 10), Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (November 6-8) and Breakin’ Convention (hip-hop festival, June 3),
Why should we come to a show, I ask? Eastwood sounds horrified she even has to explain. “You can’t see on the tele what you can experience in a theatre,” she says. “When you are sitting next to someone and there is a thousand people all laughing at the same time or all gasping at the same time – it is a complete shared experience.
“A brilliant night at the theatre is as exciting as being in the stands at your favourite football ground.”
If that doesn’t make you want to book a ticket, nothing will.
For more information on what’s on at The Grand or to book tickets for a show, head to www.blackpoolgazette.co.uk or call (01253) 743339.