Battling on amid the pandemic – Chorley Theatre’s inspirational survival story

Empire Building: Chorley Theatre, with its dedicated volunteers determined it will pull through (Photo: Ian Robinson)

“This was meant to be a big year for us. It marked the 110th anniversary of our building, plus 60 years since CADOS took control, 35 years of Chorley Youth Theatre, and 30 years since the Chorley Film Society started.

“It was all coming together, and we were set to celebrate by opening a second room to increase our capacity. But then … yeah, it’s all gone out of the window really.”

Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society (CADOS) chairman Ian Robinson is laughing, but you feel his pain. All celebratory and expansion plans postponed, uncertainty in the air. You still get the feeling and a strong belief that Chorley Theatre is here to stay though.

If you’re reading this wondering why I’m concentrating on a specific market town hub in my adopted county of Lancashire, well … let’s face it, it’s a situation so many of those working in or supporting the arts across the UK have gone through in recent months, a tale of frustration involving a community-run theatre which just happens to not be so far from my doorstep, illustrating pretty much perfectly the on-going national struggle to keep cherished venues alive amid this dreaded coronavirus pandemic and the protective restrictions that followed in its wake.

That said, even if you know the venue you may have taken your eye off the ball lately and are just spotting now that this theatre no long carries its middle name, ‘Little’. What was the thinking there, Ian?

“Part of it is that I don’t think we should define ourselves by our size. We’re the only theatre in Chorley, and now the Guild Hall (in nearby Preston) has closed one of the only venues of our type in the whole area. Also, historically, Chorley Little Theatre was the name of the venue CADOS performed in before we moved here. And with the Film Society now absorbed into the apparatus of the general theatre, it felt like it was the time to change, not least with the extension coming on.”

The extension? The theatre now runs to ‘the whole block’ at its base in Dole Lane, Chorley, including the premises of a former restaurant which stood between the venue and the (also now gone) offices of the Chorley Guardian newspaper, where this ex-journalist worked as a reporter from 1996/2006.

Live Laughs: Dan Nightingale in action at a between-lockdowns Manford’s Comedy Club night (Photo: Ian Robinson)

So now Chorley Theatre has two performance spaces, and when it eventually re-opens it will have a capacity across two rooms of 450. An exciting new era awaits, yes, but tradition remains important, and you’ll see from the photos that the impressive venue exterior still carries the Empire name, having initially opened in September 1910 as the Empire Picture House (I read elsewhere it was originally the Empire Electric Theatre, but apparently not), the town’s second electric cinema and first purpose-built flicks. In fact, a little scouting around online (not least via impressive US website Cinema Treasures) suggests this Lancashire market town alone has lost eight cinemas of various forms over the years, the first – the Hippodrome – on nearby Gillibrand Street built and opened in 1909, converted into a supermarket by the late-‘60s, that also now gone, its land reduced to car parking space opposite one of Chorley Theatre’s two ticket outlets, the Ebb & Flo bookshop.

As for the cinemas that followed the Empire in the centre of town, there was the Plaza from 1937 and fellow art deco picture house the Odeon, which opened the following year and continued to show films until 1971, soon after becoming a bingo  hall, the cost of removing asbestos recently deemed too high to save the structure, demolition imminent. As for the Plaza, which still holds affection for many around my age, that lasted until 1986, becoming a gym then converted with the rest of the building into flats and shops before being pulled down in 2012. But the Empire remains, and Ian reckons, “We’re one of the oldest surviving purpose-built cinemas in the UK … if not the world.”

Nothing’s taken for granted though, and in recent months venues across the country have had to prove their worth above others to survive. Are the Chorley Theatre team in contact with similar organisations going through those same dilemmas?

“We’re part of the community cinemas group, Cinema For all, and the British Film Institute’s Film Hub North, all part of a network, with regular events where we meet up … not for a while though! This year, the community cinemas conference was online, rather than us heading over to Sheffield and having a party. We missed out on that this year.”

In a sense, I guess you’re all in the same boat right now … struggling to stay afloat.

“We are. It’s all very tricky. But before we reopened in September, we visited the Dukes (in Lancaster), looking at what they’ve done, as we have with Southport’s Bijou Cinema. Yes, there’s been lots of sharing resources and ideas, and it’s helped a lot – you realise you’re not alone.”

And where are you at right now with regard to pandemic funding?

“We’ve done okay. It’s been frustrating going straight back into lockdown, but we managed to get funding over the summer through the ACE (Arts Council England) cultural recovery fund, part of £1.5bn the Government announced. We got £51,000 from that.

“That’s helped a lot and will keep us going, meaning the second lockdown hasn’t been quite as hard-hitting. We also got £9,000 from the BFI Film Vault, so the ACE funding will help us pay the bills and the BFI finding will help us pay for the films we put on, in turn helping us put more films on and generating more interest in the community. I need also acknowledge all those who very kindly donated via our GoFundMe campaign. That really helped. 

“But right now, we don’t know if we’re even going to be open over Christmas. That makes a difference as to how you plan, and planning is the most frustrating part of it all.”

Curtain Call: Ian Robinson facing the public at Chorley Theatre in January 2016 (Photo copyright: Chorley Guardian)

I spoke to Ian just before the latest Government announcement regarding the end of the second lockdown and return to the tier system, which turned out to be another tale of frustration for Chorley Theatre, with the entire county placed in tier three, much to his team’s frustration.

It was only on Saturday, October 31st that the venue held its first live event since the initial lockdown, a Manford’s Comedy Club bill (named on account of support from Salford-born comic, actor and presenter Jason Manford) topped by Dan Nightingale. The following night the theatre was advertising live music from The Swing Commanders ‘with socially-distanced seating, seat-service drinks and snacks, extra toilet capacity and enhanced cleaning’. But as it turned out, the theatre ‘went dark’ again soon after.

“Yes, we had Carl Hutchinson planned for November 7th, bringing him forward four days, but it was so frustrating, having spent thousands of pounds making the place Covid-secure. That’s not money we’re going to be able to get back. We’ve knocked a wall through, put barriers up, spent so much on sanitiser, we feel we’re really safe and audiences were starting to come back.

“We also had (National Theatre live screening) Fleabag, which did pretty well, then 90-odd for the comedy club event, and again for Carl. Word was getting out, people saying how safe they felt.

“If we’re in tier three from here the word is that indoor venues aren’t going to open again … even though we feel we’re safer than many other places, with social distancing, table service for drinks, loads of toilets, track and trace, one-way systems … yet it seems like we’re being punished.

“It’s great that we got money from the Arts Council, but I don’t like that we had to compete against other theatres for that. We’re all in this together. The constant chopping and changing makes it hard, and it wasn’t just theatres going for that money – there were museums, art galleries and so on.

“I am very grateful for that funding – it’s taken a lot of pressure off. But there was a lot of form filling too.”

Stage Fright: Behind the scenes at the theatre, 2020 pandemic style, Chorley, Lancashire (Photo: Ian Robinson)

Among the casualties this year was the annual panto, The Snow Queen postponed for a year as ‘am-drams’ can’t rehearse, the venue unable to afford to book a professional alternative ‘in case we have to cancel again’.

The hope when I spoke to Ian was that the venue would come out of lockdown into tier two, so they could re-open and show films over Christmas. But despite the subsequent tier three announcement, the venue is cracking on with online events, for instance those with comedians Mark Thomas and Bridget Christie, and its own ‘Virtual CADOS’ event. However, a National Theatre Live event on the run-up to Christmas, for a stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, was regrettably cancelled.

In an announcement on the theatre’s Facebook page on November 26th, we learned, “With the news that Lancashire has been placed in tier three coming out of lockdown, it sadly looks like we’ll have to cancel our December shows, so we’ll be in touch with ticket-holders in due course. Then we’ll have to see what happens in a few weeks. Merry Christmas!”. Get the feeling they wrote a few frustrated drafts of that message before deciding on that particular wording?

But back to my conversation with Ian, getting on to a number of prestigious dates already in the diary for 2021, including confirmed (as much as anything can be confirmed right now) visits from high-profile comics such as Mark Watson, Jenny Eclair, Rob Newman, local lad (and recent Britain’s Got Talent finalist) Steve Royle, the afore-mentioned Jason Manford, Clinton Baptiste, Ed Byrne, and Bridget Christie.

And this from a theatre which has made many good friends down the years, not least the likes of comics Richard Herring, Angela Barnes, and John Bishop, with appearances in recent years too from locally-based Dave Spikey and fellow former WriteWyattUK interviewees Johnny VegasLucy Beaumont, Mark Steel, Phill Jupitus, Justin Moorhouse, Chorley’s own Phil Cool, plus Jo Caulfield, Mike Harding, and recently-departed Bobby Ball, a regular visitor – off-stage and on.

“Jason Manford’s show’s been moved a few times – it’s been in the diary more than two years, while Gary Delaney will be coming back next year, and there are a few more pencilled in. Things are still up in the air, and next year will be a mad scramble, trying to put on new and delayed shows. And we’re just going to have to hope audiences will come back. That’s still a big worry.”

Burning Bright: The lights still burn at Chorley Theatre, with a happier, healthier 2021 in sight (Photo: Ian Robinson)

I get the impression you remain cautiously optimistic though.

“I am. We’ve been tested this year. You just have to get on with your job and hope the Government sorts their bit out. They haven’t really done that though, and they’re on the back-foot all the time. That frustration’s there for most businesses too. A lot of shops bought Christmas stock, then they were back in lockdown.

“But we’ll be running socially-distanced seating until Easter, and hopefully after then we’ll be back to full houses. Promoters have been very patient with us too. They don’t want us to go bust. They still want places to bring comedians in the future.”

The main theatre holds 230, but currently holds around 95 due to restrictions (dependent on the size of groups booking together). And while the new space is as yet unfinished, with work abandoned last Easter, in time that will hold 100 seated and 150 standing, the space configured according to each event – for live bands, talks, comedy, and plays performed in the round.

And just to stress, there are no permanent staff at this voluntary-run community hub that Ian first got involved with as a 14-year-old in 1989.

“That’s another thing. Those volunteers are our friends, and we’re a community yet we’ve not been able to see each other this year. Normally we’d do a play together, have a drink after, and all that’s been missing. You just hope they’re going to come back when we re-open.

“When we opened again in September, it was nice to see people back, to catch up with volunteers and our audiences, many telling us it was good to get back to some kind of normality. And really It’s about the fun aspect, meeting people, and all that. It shouldn’t have to be about form-filling.”

Community Hub: Chorley Theatre is ready to catch up on its celebrations as 2021 draws closer (Photo: Ian Robinson)

For a January 2016 feature/interview with Ian Robinson, putting the spotlight on Chorley Little Theatre, as it was then known, head here.

And I should stress that in light of the latest COVID-19 restrictions, it makes sense to check out the Chorley Theatre website for all the latest information about forthcoming events, via this link

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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