At a time of year when Harrogate Theatre is awash in queues of schoolchildren for the annual pantomime, the team that has turned its fortunes in recent years is reminding everyone that is more than just a venue for hugely popular shows.
The team behind its success is keen to transform the theatre into a cultural hub for the town not only for the benefit of the town’s arts scene but to support a wider town centre revival for the good of the town’s economy.
After first announcing ambitious £5-8 million plans two years ago which would see a restructuring of part of this grand old building on Oxford Street which was built in 1900 by renowned architect Frank Tugwell, Harrogate Theatre has been engaged since then in lengthy discussions with key organisations including the Arts Council.
While progress towards the end goal of the project has a long way to go, the theatre’s chief executive believes there are encouraging signs that they will get there ultimately.
David Bown said: “The ability to bring in many more visitors from beyond Harrogate and district is a major priority for our team and very much an achievable ambition.
“The discussions have not just been about improving our building, but how the theatre can contribute to a regeneration of this end of town to create a truly vibrant cultural quarter.
"This is a complex process and there’s a long way to go, but, discussions so far have been very positive.”
Originally known as The Grand Opera House when it first opened on January 11, 1900, since a funding crisis in the mid-eighties which resulted in it closing for a period of reorganisation until 1987, its current management team and board has acquired a strong reputation throughout Britain’s theatre industry.
The last decade has seen record attendances, not only for the theatre’s family-friendly panto, which this year is Jack and the Beanstalk, but also for its packed programme throughout the year, in particular the annual Harrogate Comedy Festival is organises.
Although it has been undertaking a careful refurbishment and restoration to improve its facilities, the theatre’s chief executive says it has to do more for the good of the town centre.
David Bown said: “Within the UK arts industry, Harrogate Theatre is a very respected part of the overall arts ecology, but we believe there is much more potential for the benefit of the town.”
“At a time when the face of the High Street is changing, I feel the theatre can play a crucial role in sustaining the buoyancy of the town centre.
“I think it’s vital to consider continued investment in this theatre, that brings residents and visitors from all over the world to Harrogate, which then has a knock on effect for the shops, restaurants, hotels and the overall local economy.
“It’s with this in mind that Harrogate Theatre Trust has been in talks with its many stakeholders about refurbishment and enhancing the presence of the theatre on Oxford Street itself.”
A non-profit making charitable trust since 1960, the theatre prospers with comparatively little support from the public purse, standing or falling by its own effort and judgement.
But David Bown is calling for the public to support it in its mission to redraw the map of the town centre.
He said: “There is a lot of concern about the empty shop units but I strongly believe that what partly makes Oxford Street resilient, is Harrogate Theatre, which is quite literally the cornerstone of the street.
“You’ll never be able to experience live performance online and so there will always be a demand for what we do, in one form or another, and that brings a constant footfall to the area, especially at this time of year.
“I urge people to get behind our campaign with a view to making the theatre absolutely fundamental to the future success of Harrogate.”