It’s tough times for the arts. Even in the best of economic climates, setting up your own producing theatre is no mean task. Dozens of different elements have to slot into place but, sometimes, a project feels like it’s meant to come together.
Such is the case with Hope Mill Theatre in Ancoats, Manchester. It opened last December and has big ambitions. The five-storey mill is a creative hub for talent including writers, artists and designers, and also provides a platform for theatre groups to perform their work. Now a partnership has been formed with Aria Entertainment to produce new British and American musicals, specialising in the ‘lost’ work that fringe audiences in London and the States have enjoyed for some time but is rarely seen up in the North.
Northern Soul spoke to Katy Lipson, producer and company director at Aria, about returning to her roots. But first we chatted to Joseph Houston, co-owner with partner William Whelton of Hope Mill, about taking on such a huge project. Not surprisingly, he is excited and nervous about everything that’s been happening.
“Oh God, it’s been crazy just trying to keep up with it all. When Will and I got the keys we just sat there going ‘we’ve got a massive mill in Ancoats and it’s going to become a theatre!’ It felt like a dream but it was definitely one of those moments. It’s our business and we’re totally self-funded thanks to business start-up loans. We found Hope Mill on Gumtree of all places and as soon as we viewed it we fell in love with the space and the building. It felt like the right time to jump in with both feet, just do it and see what happens.
“Luckily it didn’t need major structural work so was very much a blank canvas. A lot of family and friends mucked in with the DIY, decorating and stuff. My mother-in-law even tiled the bathroom. It’s been five months already and it’s all coming together with our first production. We’ve also had a lot of positive attention so it feels like the goals are achievable now.”
Houston and Whelton lived in London for seven years having trained and worked in musical theatre. So what prompted the decision to move away from what many regard as the heartbeat of the industry?
“London was just too expensive and as Will is from Macclesfield, we decided to come up and see what was happening in the North West. We met up with lots of actors, directors and production companies and it got us thinking about how there’s so many talented people in Manchester in need of a platform. There also seemed to be room for a different type of venue that presented smaller scale musical theatre work. It’s a passion for both of us and when we came up to Manchester we realised that there’s a thriving fringe scene except in musical theatre. So the timing was perfect that along with us opening the new venue we knew there was something we could offer – we could stage great musicals with high production values.”
The next piece of the puzzle was collaborating with Katy Lipson who has a wealth of experience producing shows in the West End. She also happened to be a local girl looking for a project she could work on back in her home city. Houston is well aware of what a perfect fit it is.
“It does seem like it was all meant to be. I worked as an actor for Katy in London as well as for our director James Baker so we all have a connection from before, plus it tied in with Katy’s ambitions to work up here. She was overwhelmed when she saw the space. We all immediately decided to just make some work and the ball started rolling.
“Our first production is Parade. There’s a lot riding on it and it’s exciting and so scary. It’s important to us as a new venue that our first in-house production shows people the kind of work we want to create and what we’re made of. You’ve got to set that bar high and present high calibre productions with stellar casts. The beauty of having a slightly smaller theatre is that you can be more creative because you have limitations. You can only work within the space and the funding you’ve been given. Also, with less seats to fill  you can be more adventurous with the content. To be sat up close and personal to the action and the cast is a very special thing.”
“I’ve been building the company up for four years now and it’s a very busy existence. I work independently and put a lot of time into it but I love musicals and I love theatre so most of my life revolves around that anyway. After work I might go and see a show, read a script or meet other creators and actors so you find it just takes over your life. You have to be an expert at time management, resourceful and know good people. If you put the right team together you feel confident enough to leave them to get on with it and do a great job. All this allows me to do several shows at the same time.
“I’m the sort of person who has to have an artistic vision but also I’m open to opportunities that are good for me so when I met James Baker I was really very taken with his passion as a director and was really committed to working with him. Luckily I already knew Joseph Houston from London so when he said he had this theatre and did I want to work with him it was just ‘absolutely’. To bring a show like Parade to my home town and have my family see what I do was a no brainer. It’s thrilling to be doing this.
“I want to give the new British musical a home. After Parade we’re looking out for a new musical with a North West theme to workshop and develop and put on at Hope Mill in September. Hopefully in years to come we can premiere more and more British musicals here.”
So, the Hope Mill/Aria collaboration kicks off with a revival of the Tony Award-winning Parade. It tells the story of a Brooklyn-raised Jew living in Georgia who is put on trial for murder. Guilty in the eyes of everyone around him, only his wife and a governor with a conscience fight his corner at a time when corruption in the legal system was rife in the landscape of Atlanta.
It might seem to some that opening with a relatively unknown musical is a bit of a gamble. But Lispson is confident that this is the right decision.
“We wanted the first production to be extremely hard hitting and something that could fly the flag for unknown musicals. Parade is well known on the West End and fringe theatre circuit in London. It started in New York and has been at London’s Donmar Warehouse. We think it fits the artistic remit of what this theatre is all about – offering a platform for musicals that are not coming to mainstream theatres in Manchester. There are so many shows that are not on the commercial circuit that need to be seen by audiences up here. We compiled a shortlist of ten such shows and this was our decision.
“The story is heartbreaking and the themes – prejudice, corruption, misjudgement – are universal. We’ve got a nine-piece band and a cast of 15 and the harmonies they all create in this smaller space are just thrilling. As it’s a fringe space you can sit in the audience and literally feel the sweat coming off the performers as well see their emotions directly, and all for a fraction of the price of a larger scale show. The intense experience offers something different that audiences will remember and go away and talk about. We want to take your breath away!”
People can judge for themselves when Parade opens on May 13 and runs for three weeks. If Northern Soul‘s chat with the brains behind this staging is anything to go by, you should buy your ticket now.