We all need somewhere to escape the stresses and strains of every day life.

Launch of the Grand Theatre summer season programme.  Pictured are Katya Virshilas and Jared Murillo.
Launch of the Grand Theatre summer season programme. Pictured are Katya Virshilas and Jared Murillo.
Share this article
Have your say

We all need somewhere to escape the stresses and strains of every day life.

For some that’s the football field, for others is the great outdoors or the pages of a book.

And for an additional 6,000 people from Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre, that place has been the Grand Theatre.

Theatre bosses are celebrating new figures from the financial year April 2014 to March 2015, with the extra visitors coming through the doors thanks to targeted brochure drops, and local audiences making up 70 per cent of those who visit the Church Street theatre.

This marketing experiment, of delivering around 130,000 brochures to local homes, was introduced by chief executive Ruth Eastwood when she joined the team almost two years ago.

The latest audience numbers were revealed at Monday’s new season brochure launch, celebrating the diverse offering at the Grand between now and December.

“It’s one of the things we wanted to achieve, bigger audiences from our most local areas,” Ruth said.

“That’s why the brochure changed in design and in delivering it door-to-door, to remind those closest to us that we’re here.”

While the overall number of sales was actually down by 3,000, average sales are up by five per cent at the classic Frank Matcham theatre.

That deficit has been attributed to the loss of two major musical tours within weeks of each other; Copacabana and Annie Get Your Gun were both due to visit – and had been strong sellers at the Grand box office – but were pulled nationally.

Annie was cancelled in August for a September run at the Grand, while the tour of Copacabana attracted national theatre industry media attention, when the producers went underground over allegations of non-payment of cast and crew.

The Grand took the tough decision to cancel its booking after four days of trying to contact the company responsible for the show – when performances were cancelled elsewhere the week before it was due in town. The tour was subsequently pulled.

While the loss of the shows was out of local management’s hands, public perception from customers is that they’ve been let down by the venue.

“It was difficult losing two shows like Copa’ and Annie, and there was a third big show that although it hadn’t actually been announced would also have been crucial to boost those figures,” Ruth said.

“And had those two gone ahead, we would have been well up on the previous year. So to be 3,000 down, given those losses, is not so bad - especially as average audience numbers are up by five per cent.

“Generally speaking, you might have one show lost in a year or a season, but to get two in such a short time, was rough.”

And this is just indicative of some of the financial challenges many small to medium sized businesses face - as that’s essentially what the Grand Theatre is.

It’s a registered charity and is privately run. The vast majority of its income – 80 per cent comes from ticket sales, with funding also from the Arts Council and a small amount, 3.5per cent, of support from Blackpool Council.

Asked about the general economic recovery and the impact that might be having, Ruth laughs. She’s just attended an Arts Council meeting in Manchester, discussing future funding in the region.

“All businesses are in the same boat,” she said. “We have had to introduce the new employer pension scheme from the Government, and we will have to introduce the new minimum wage levels, while we’ve had cuts from pretty much all of our funding.

“This year will be OK, next year will be tough.

“We are completely independent, I don’t think people realise that we’re not under local authority ownership like a lot of other places in Blackpool.”

Part of Ruth’s scheme to draw in a greater local audience was the distribution of season brochures to homes across the area, which is now paying off.

While the 130,000 distribution seen for last summer’s programme and the first one for 2015, the impact of this has been reconsidered and a more targeted delivery is taking place for the new brochure - launched on Monday.

“The first brochure which came out when I started went to every household, but we can’t afford that every time,” she admitted.

“This time we’re going to areas where we feel we aren’t achieving as much of an audience as we think we should.

“You don’t know until you try something like that if it will work. The first time - last summer’s brochure, the results were almost exactly as they had been the previous season, then the second time - with our early 2015 brochure, we got much more data back and the distribution was proving impactful.

“People do drop out of the habit of attending the theatre, as their lives change and develop, so we need to tease them and remind them to come back.”

‘Teasing’ perhaps being the operative word for one of the autumn highlights - a new national tour of stage play The Full Monty, based on the smash hit Brit flick.

This is particularly important for the Grand, as the tour will actually be launching from the theatre, with production rehearsals taking place there ahead of its national premiere on Thursday, September 10 - starting a 10-night run at the venue, before it moves on.

“We don’t often create theatre here, we buy it in. But there’s a real benefit locally, as the cast and crew for The Full Monty will be here for two full weeks, similarly with Puttin’ On The Ritz for five weeks here during the summer, that means they will be spending in the local economy while they live and work in town,” Ruth said.

“That was an especially exciting part of having Katya and Jared, our stars of Puttin’ On The Ritz, at the launch.”

Katya Virshilas and Jared Murillo are the two former Strictly Come Dancing professionals who are heading the cast of the ‘song and dance extravaganza’, which celebrates the golden age of musical theatre, featuring the works of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, for five weeks from Monday, July 27.

Speaking at Monday’s launch, it was clear the dancers were looking forward to their time in town - each one having regularly visited to compete in the annual Blackpool Dance Festival, the international celebration of ballroom and Latin dance, which attracts the world’s best.

“Because of the Winter Gardens’ competition, this is the dance capital for us in England, so it’s special to be able to perform in the Grand Theatre, in the town which gave dance such a great start in the UK in the 20s and 30s,” Katya said. “And it’s exactly that old Hollywood glamour that we’re bringing back.”

Also in the mix for the new season is Brave New World, a world premiere tour of a new stage adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1930s’ novel, set 200 years in the future from that time.

Producer Matthew Gale was also at the season launch, promising anyone who attends that show, from Tuesday, November 24, a thought-provoking piece of work.

In a similar vein to Orwell’s 1984, it’s a dystopian view of the future - where only happiness exists.

“The extraordinary thing about theatre is that it sits between a book, which this is based on, and a film,” he said. “With a book you have to use complete imagination and in film you are given everything, and can sit back and watch aimlessly.

“That will not be the case with Brave New World.”

Whether there’s a brave new generation of theatregoers being raised in Blackpool remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure the Grand’s working hard to make that the case.