COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone. Nothing and no one has remained untouched, not least our theatres. UK-wide, venues have been forced to make crucial decisions about how to deal with the crisis. The UK’s creative industries, which bring in £120 billion a year for the economy, have played a vital role in keeping us going during lockdown, with theatres making a significant contribution.
In a new three-part series, Northern Soul’s Jules Lentane chats to theatre venues and organisations in the North East of England and investigates how they are coping during the pandemic. This week, he talks to Katy Taylor, artistic director of Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham, a beautiful market town on the banks of the River Tyne in Northumberland. It is steeped in history, with an abbey dating back to the 7th century, as well as the first public gaol (jail), built to deal with the lawless Border Reivers, raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century.
The Arts Centre, or QHA for short, shares a building in the heart of Hexham with the town library. It has two spaces, a 400+ seat main stage and an intimate 45-seat studio, as well as a café that conjures up truly delicious food. The QHA delivers a diverse mixture of work, including touring theatre, stand-up comedy, literary events, folk music, exhibitions, children’s theatre and, more recently, has began producing. Last year, under Katy Taylor’s aegis, it commissioned and produced A Viking Christmas by Gary Kitching, a radical departure from its normal yuletide fare, which proved to be a massive hit with audiences.
Taylor took over from long-standing artistic director, Geof Keys, who stood down in 2018 after 20 years of distinguished work. Her previous role was executive director at the Witham in Barnard Castle, a job she hadn’t courted. She started out by helping to recruit volunteers for a refurbishment and ended up running the building so successfully that she was the obvious choice for QHA. Her leadership style is warm, collaborative and inclusive and she loves what she does.
“It is a privilege to work in the arts,” she says. “It is hard work, but always worth it.”
Like so many artistic directors, Taylor had to make swift decisions when lockdown first began back in March 2020. “We started having twice weekly staff briefings and then, just before the first lockdown, we met as a team every day. We furloughed all but two staff and met with a working group from the board weekly and we rewrote the mission statement, focusing on survival for QHA, our community and freelancers.”
Solidarity with other North East venues was a real help. Taylor cites Jo Potts at Alnwick Playhouse and Ros Lamont at The Maltings, Berwick as two artistic directors she kept in constant touch with as they formulated policy. Shows and tours had to be cancelled, tickets refunded and cashflows re-forecasted.
“We have focused on long-term survival,” says Taylor, “ensuring that we are still a viable arts venue and charity for many years to come.”
Her commitment to local artists means that she has done all she can to support the creatives who contribute to the building. “We have worked with freelance artists and professionals wherever we are able, because we need them to still be in the industry in a post-COVID-19 world.”
Looking to the future
When QHA reopens it will be with as strong a portfolio and with as much work coming through as ever before. Not that Queen’s Hall has remained idle during the lockdown. A successful Arts Council capital funding bid means that the venue can go ahead with a major rebuild of its studio space, as well as ensuring that all the backstage areas accessible. Much of the creative work has gone virtual, including the youth theatre. A young writers group are finding ways to keep being creative online, and animation and fine art projects are thriving. There are hopes for a live-streamed piece of theatre in early summer with Durham-based company Elysium TC.
It has not been easy, but Taylor is optimistic. “It’s still a very fluid environment, so it is tricky to plan. Some shows have moved three or four times during the crisis. It will take time to get back to where we were, but I am keen to learn lessons from lockdown and celebrate how creative people were.”
I came away from our conversation feeling that Hexham’s theatre was in good hands, that it would survive and, as the saying goes, build back better. If there’s something that sets Taylor’s approach to COVID-19 apart from others, it’s her quiet but passionately held belief that for the arts to thrive they must stay connected to their audiences.
“We must take time out to listen to people and work to bring in new audiences,” she says. “The arts need to work with people and collaborate, and sometimes not to rush, but to take time to invest in a community. I have been endlessly surprised by how resilient and adaptable humans are. New ways of working will develop, and I hope that we will look back on this time as the start of positive changes in the arts.”
The country needs the arts, and the arts need the country. It’s inspiring to talk to an artistic director who, even in the middle of this crisis, is looking to the future.
By Jules Lentane
Images courtesy of Katy Taylor the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham