How Sutton Coldfield Town Hall has put its heart into the community

As Julie Rennison entered Sutton Coldfield Town Hall for the first time during lockdown, she was greeted by a wall of silence.

Julie Rennison
Julie Rennison

A venue often bustling with people scurrying back-stage and an audience buzzing with excitement for the start of a performance, the spark had disappeared.

Hundreds of shows were cancelled – including Strictly winner Bill Bailey’s visit to the historic venue – and staff had been furloughed.

For all its internal beauty and history, a venue without people to make it come alive is just a building.

But, with no shows expected for the foreseeable, Julie suddenly witnessed the Town Hall become a beacon of positivity for Sutton.

The show must go on as they say. It became a base for community food donations, providing support for five local food banks, and offering help for families hit hardest by the pandemic.

And, of course, it has since become the town’s vaccine hub with more than 55,000 people receiving the jab at the Grade-A listed Civic building on King Edward’s Square.

A major film production, set in the First World War, also filmed scenes in the Town Hall last October.

Sutton Coldfield Town Hall

“It’s obviously been a tough time,” Julie says. “In March last year, we had to cancel hundreds of shows. We had some job losses and it was only myself who wasn’t furloughed.

"So I was here on my own, painting and cleaning, meeting with trustees via Zoom to decide the next steps. It felt like it had lost its heart. Volunteers started coming in then, which they could do, as the Town Hall is a charity.

“The food donation bank started up two days a week, and things started to build up momentum.

“By the end of the summer it felt like we had built up a community of helpers and associates.”

The venue could also welcome some performers.

“Two dance schools, En Pointe and Razzmatazz, came to us and said they couldn’t go back to the centres they had because they had been temporarily closed,” she recalls. “So from September to December we held two dance schools. We couldn’t do shows but these were an educational group.

“It was brilliant to see them and it felt like a bit of spark, some life was coming back. And then, at Christmas, we spoke to the NHS and a vibrant partnership was born resulting in the vaccination centre.”

Julie and the Town Hall team worked closely with Dr Rahul Dubb, from Sutton Coldfield Group Practice, the local GP leading on vaccinations, University Hospitals Birmingham, Royal Sutton Coldfield Town Council, MP Andrew Mitchell and other key figures to enable the site to open at the beginning of February. A fantastic army of volunteers have also helped to carry out a successful programme so far.

And while the pandemic has had a terrible impact on the arts industry, Julie has focused on the positive aspects.

“I feel like our community has grown because of it,” she says. “Nobody wants a pandemic but there’s been a war spirit within Sutton Coldfield.

“I feel like we are at the heart of the community now because a lot of things have happened here.

“People are talking about us in a positive way.

“Its been an emotional journey going from coming in here, into this big building, on my own, to people returning. People in the town might not have even been in here before. We knew it had personality but its hard to convince people.

“Now they have come through our doors and people are saying they will come back because they have seen what heart the building has.”

Julie Rennison

The Hall’s prominent role during the pandemic is something to applaud but, moving forward, the return of performances will, of course, be vital.

“We would rather have people coming for a show, of course,” says Julie. “Shows are scheduled to come back in September and we can’t wait. It’s all ‘touch wood’ still at the moment as we don’t know what’s around the corner. We have been told so many times that we might reopen soon and it doesn’t happen, so you are always a bit unsure.

“Last year I had started to be cynical when I looked at a show date. It was ‘if’ that happens rather than ‘when’. But, as we have decided on a September restart, due to the vaccine programme, it’s different for us, compared to others.

“Many are starting back in June and that’s probably more terrifying. We’ll know if the parameters change by September and we’ll shift with them. We have shown we can be flexible.”

Julie hopes that, having been starved of theatre for a year, and having seen what the venue has to offer, people might throw their support behind the venue in the coming months.

“We have received some great support, which has helped us make adjustments to the look of the place and make it a place people want to visit,” she adds. “We hope people are desperate to get back to entertainment. They might have taken it for granted before and they may look more local because people have become localised during the pandemic.

“They might see we are around the corner, doing musicals, dances and other shows. It might put us in a better position. But we are not out of the woods because we don’t know how people will react to coming back. We are excited though. We look forward to the live shows in September and we have pantomime coming.

"It will be Cinderella, set in Russia, and we’ll be doing loads of outreach work, getting youngsters and students in the town to make Russian dolls and panto-inspired projects.”

The applause of an audience for performances is something that Julie will relish in the coming months.

No doubt visitors will also be clapping for those volunteers at the venue who have played their part in helping the community during these difficult times.

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