Summer in Manchester – a tale of two theatres

03 RET & KANDINSKY - THERE IS A LIGHT production - David Crellin - Photo by Manuel Harlan

When HOME proudly announced three “world premiere productions” as part of its 2019 theatre season you’d be forgiven for assuming that those shows would be premiering in front of local Manchester audiences. However, following that announcement back in November last year, it gradually emerged that the majority of those world premieres were being saved up for Edinburgh’s annual Festival Fringe.

While Liz Richardson’s wonderful Swim was previewed in HOME’s Theatre 2 ahead of its Fringe appearance, Scottee’s Class and Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran went straight to Edinburgh for their premiere performances. Scottee’s many Manchester fans will have to wait until the end of October to see Class, and there are currently no confirmed dates showing on HOME’s website for the local run of Alipoor’s new (and now Fringe First-winning) show.

HOME is also involved in a further 6 shows at Edinburgh this year as either producer, commissioner or co-producer. It’s something they are justifiably proud of, seeing their presence as “reinforcing (HOME’s) status as one of the major theatre producers in the UK theatre scene”.

It’s understandable (and laudable) that Manchester’s biggest arts centre sees a role for itself in supporting theatre-makers to have their work seen at a large scale industry showcase such as Edinburgh. After all, HOME exists for new art and new artists. However, it also exists for audiences.

That so much effort has been focused on creating a number of shows to be performed at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is surprising when viewed in the wider context of HOME’s current offer to its own audience. Their last major in-house production was Lily Sykes’ The Maids in November last year. Since then, HOME has largely been a receiving venue playing host to a selection of touring shows, with only the occasional festival providing a more local flavour. While there’s no doubting the quality and diversity of the companies that the programming team attract to Manchester, the big reduction in in-house productions has left an increasingly glaring gap. Hopefully, the recent appointment of Jude Christian as Associate Director will help to put that right.

It’s also worth noting that although the building’s gallery and cinemas played a significant role in this summer’s Manchester International Festival (MIF), for the first time since HOME opened, there was no MIF production in Theatre 1.

Meanwhile back up at the Fringe, HOME’s view that “playing a major part in taking so many productions to Edinburgh, as well as then bringing them to our stages for our own audience, is precisely what HOME is all about” fails to consider that Manchester theatre-goers might naively think they should be more of a priority in that equation. Does asking them to patiently wait several months to see the shows you’ve produced while you open them in a blaze of publicity at “one of the world’s major cultural happenings” subtly reveal something about the value you place on your Manchester audience?

More critically, while HOME’s team are busy bolstering the ever-burgeoning choice of productions at a festival where theatre critic Matt Trueman declares “there’s simply too much good stuff to squeeze into three and a half weeks”, they might want to spare a thought for the audience they’ve left behind in their home city.

HOME’s main 499 seat auditorium will be ‘dark’ for over 9 weeks this summer. Having played host to its final theatre performance in early July, except for the occasional one-off event, it won’t re-open until the second week of September. Similarly, there’s nothing programmed in Theatre 2 (capacity 132 seats) for 7 weeks during July and August.

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HOME’s two theatres may be sitting empty this summer, but across town, the Royal Exchange has been having a busy couple of months. Just under a week after their production of Hobson’s Choice closed in early July, they played host to Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott’s Tao of Glass as part of Manchester International Festival. Most recently, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, a co-production with Kandinsky, thrillingly and inventively told stories of Luddite rebellion from early 19th century Manchester.

Although it has just come to the end of its run on the main stage there’ll be a couple more chances for people to see There Is A Light That Never Goes Out in the Den, the Exchange’s brand-new pop-up theatre. Specifically designed as an informal space for residents to make and share theatre and to see work from the Royal Exchange, the Den makes its premiere appearance in Stalybridge Civic Hall this August for a special two-week festival.

During July and early August, the theatre has been working with partner organisations to offer a wide range of workshops and courses to support residents who want to get involved in creating and being part of performances in the Den. The festival itself will open with A Tameside Story which will feature original pieces of theatre that tell stories that reflect the experiences of local communities, and there’s a programme of workshops and family-focused events. As well as showcasing the Royal Exchange’s lastest main house production, the Den will also be playing host to a selection of work from the recent Co:LAB Festival, and an exclusive run of the Exchange Young Company‘s latest show UTOPIA – After Thomas More (directed by Atri Banerjee, with text by Chris Thorpe).

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The Royal Exchange’s Den is part of Local Exchange a wider outreach programme focussed on bespoke, long-term residencies at locations within Greater Manchester boroughs which are “designed to respond to the cultural ambitions of each specific community”. Tameside, the Den’s first location, has no large-scale professional theatre and a limited local cultural offer. Box offices offering ‘pay what you decide’ tickets for the performances at Stalybridge have been popping up at various locations across the borough throughout the summer.

It’s a smart move by the Royal Exchange, and not just in its emphasis on proactively developing new audiences while at the same time providing opportunities for residents to develop new skills and meet new people. In seeking to create “the space for a conversation with the people of Greater Manchester about what the future of theatre looks like for us all”, it is positioning itself as not just a theatre for Manchester but as a respected institution taking the lead in the city-region too. Such an approach will do it no harm in an increasingly competitive funding environment and with the opening of The Factory on the horizon.

This isn’t a simple case of HOME bad/Royal Exchange good. Both are great cultural assets for the city and manage to deliver a lot in difficult times. However, while perception isn’t everything, having a significant presence at the Edinburgh Festival when you’ve shut your own theatres down for two months is probably not the best look. What does such an approach really say about the value you place on your local audience?

When you’re up in Edinburgh it may be hard to believe that there is life outside of the Fringe bubble, but there is. The Royal Exchange’s continued commitment to programming during the summer months recognises that in a major city with a growing population and a healthy visitor economy, interest in theatre, and the appetite to experience performance, doesn’t simply vanish when July comes around. In fact, with families looking for things to do, students with time on their hands, and long light nights, this might well be one of the best times of year to welcome new audiences through your doors. If you haven’t closed them on your way out…

Images – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (Manuel Harlan), HOME Theatre 1 (Machteld Schoep), The Den (Royal Exchange), Featured image (Royal Exchange).

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