Express & Star

The show must go on – and we will find a way: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre preparing for life after lockdown

Wolverhampton Grand Theatre artistic director Adrian Jackson talks about the adversity the theatre faces following the coronavirus pandemic, and how the show will go on.

The Grand Theatre have set up a ghost light on stage. It's a theatre tradition where a single stage light is illuminated on stage when the theatre is unoccupied for a long period of time

Everyone at the Grand Theatre normally lives by the old showbusiness motto: The show must go on.

No matter what adversity faces those of us working in theatrical production, the curtain must rise for the performance.

Sadly, the Covid-19 crisis has meant the foyer doors in Lichfield Street in Wolverhampton have remained closed under measures to protect the nation’s health.

Like theatres all over the West Midlands, across the nation and around the world, the show at the Grand has had to halt for an unplanned interval with potentially grave repercussions.

The uncertainty over when live entertainment venues can reopen is putting our entire industry at risk. Nationally, many theatre leaders have gone public with fears that their venues may not survive the coronavirus pandemic. Regional theatres and national institutions are facing threats to their very existence.

As life ground to a halt two months ago, along with so many other businesses and venues we had to shut for the lockdown.

Audience members at Wolverhampton's Top Talent 2009, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.

In December, the Grand celebrated its 125 th anniversary followed swiftly by another successful pantomime run, which saw packed audiences enjoy Dick Whittington, featuring stars including Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas, along with Hi-De-Hi favourites Su Pollard and Jeffrey Holland.

We had a varied and full programme planned for the spring and summer, including performances by illusionist Derren Brown, Afghanistan drama The Kite Runner and a tribute show to US soul singer Luther Vandross.

Instead, the Grand Theatre closed on March 17 and will now remain shut, with no clear sign when we will be able to open. Since March, to put it in simple terms there has been no money coming in.

Many businesses face the same challenge, but we do not have the options to adapt that some others have had. Theatres are either open or closed. There is no middle way.

Working in theatre is not a job but a way of life. Being closed to our audience is like not seeing your family.

The ornate fire curtain, in 1945

We are proud of our heritage. The Grand Theatre has been open throughout the reign of six monarchs and twenty-eight prime ministers. It has also survived two world wars. The facts speak for themselves. We welcome 300,000 people through the doors every year, bringing a significant economic impact to the city.

The Grand spent £1.2m in redeveloping the front of house to enhance the audience experience and has laid out plans for further investment and expansion. As part of our charitable status, we have goals for contributing to education, culture and diversity.

My team are proud that we engage with secondary and primary schools. We employ many young people, giving them practical experience of theatre both on stage and behind the scenes.

Our other work includes a dementia friendly memory café, interactive workshops for community groups, accessible performances and various guided tours and educational visits.

Unfortunately, we have had to put on hold all these activities which enrich lives. Thanks to careful financial management I believe the Grand can continue to weather the storm in the short term.

Those who value our theatres will support us. Arts must remain one of the priorities for the Government, albeit as it continues to respond to the nation’s health crisis. Without it, many theatres, particularly those with charity status are facing an immense challenge to reopen.

The full cast and crew of Wolverhampton Grand's pantomime 2019

We will need to understand any new guidelines on social distancing and adapt to ensure audiences are safe. Serious discussions will need to take place before we know when theatres can reopen.

The priority for now is the survival of the Grand Theatre. I am grateful to all the staff and supporters who have rallied round to help during the crisis, either by engaging with customers or coming up with fundraising ideas. I would like to thank all our loyal patrons who have been overwhelmingly supportive with generous donations and well wishes for the theatre.

Every theatre needs income coming in not just in ticket sales but other revenues. The refurbished Grand Theatre bar is essential to our operation and the theatre experience. We want people to feel they can arrive early, enjoy refreshments and make the most of a sociable theatre experience.

So where do we go from here? Using video meeting technology, I have taken part in a theatre leaders’ conference with my counterparts at companies across the world.

Photographers from West Midlands Photo Collective took behind-the-scenes shots at Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre. Photo: Rachel Mason

Every live venue in the world is battling with the same challenges over their futures.

We will be going on a journey to adapt, using what we can within the constraints we will be given. As creative people, we are going to have to think about the way we present theatre going forwards to ensure it is safe for our audience.

One mindset we may be called upon to consider is, “smaller is better than gone”.

If we must change to adapt to the new way of life, we have the creativity and knowhow in our industry to find the way.

I am sure we can get through this period to welcome again all those who have supported us and to offer new experiences for the audiences of the future.

Behind-the-scenes of Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre. Photo: Rachel Mason

Theatre is not as interactive when it is seen through a screen. The live experience of performance is like no other.

Our majestic auditorium has been plunged into darkness, yet one light has been left on, to follow a long tradition – and superstition – of keeping the theatre ghosts at peace.

Amid the gloom, I believe we can reopen and continue to do what the Grand Theatre has been doing for the past 126 years, deliver live entertainment to the people of Wolverhampton and beyond.