By Graham Chalmers
If a theatre has to get quite a few things right these days just to survive, what must it do to become great?
Having fashioned a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes in the last decade, Harrogate Theatre seems intent on reaching that happy position where it means something to everyone, writes Graham Chalmers.
As part of its restless search for improvement, last autumn it opened its own dedicated space for learning theatre skills called The Hive right next door on Oxford Street.
Hannah Draper, head of education at Harrogate Theatre, said, if nothing else, it was a relief for the youth theatre to have a place it could finally call home!
“Until The Hive was launched, we used to walk around town carrying amps and practising in church halls. It’s nice not to have to do that and to have your own home rather than being a guest in someone else’s place.”
But The Hive and its specially-refurbished two floors is much more than a matter of convenience.
It’s a hive of activity. A focal point for creativity. A place to nurture the roots of the future.
And in all this Hannah’s role is pivotal. There’s the classes to organise, the youth theatre’s annual shows to direct and produce. The competitions to enter.
The cheery Hannah tends to look after the 15-plus age groups’ productions while youth theatre leaders do the rest.
Even Harrogate Theatre’s very own associate director Phil Lowe gets in on the act, directing the summer show.
Legwork and brainwork. Acting skills, teaching skills, and organisational skills.
It’s a good job Hannah learned versatility early.
Having passed theatre studies at York College, Hannah had gone to the University of Birmingham to take drama and theatre arts, all set on becoming an actress herself.
Then reality of the competitive nature of the acting business hit her.
“Before I went to university I was going to be an actress all the way but after three or four weeks I changed my mind.
“It was partly that I realised all the other students I met wanted to act more than I did. I decided I didn’t want to act but I did want to be in theatre. And I realised I liked being in youth theatre.”
Since The Hive opened, the youth theatre has added three new drama workshop groups, including one for three to five-year-olds.
New weekly singing classes covering every variety of musical theatre and contemporary pop have also been launched for two new groups - seven to 11-year-olds and 12-plus.
But The Hive is about more than simply acquiring performing skills, says the quietly energetic Hannah who admits to not having been the world’s most accomplished singer when she appeared in school productions herself as a youngster.
“I was always that kid who loved taking part in school shows but they always tended to be musicals and I wasn’t a great singer.
“It’s good to have some classes in The Hive where parents know their children can concentrate on learning to act without having to worry about musical theatre. It’s a relief for them.”
The Hive also gives Harrogate Theatre the opportunity to offer a space to the whole community.
It already hosts a poetry reading group and a play reading group and it’s even possible to celebrate your children’s birthday party there.
And it’s also a useful facility in the theatre’s goal of becoming a dementia-friendly location.
“We’re linking up with a drama therapist and Dementia Forward, one of the Harrogate mayor’s charities, to set up workshops to support relatives of dementia sufferers. The Hive really helps us to expand our outreach activities.”
The demands on Hannah’s time may be many but it’s impossible to ignore the cheery optimism that took her into the theatre in the first place, an attitude which saw her learn the importance of collaboration on a cultural exchange in far-flung Kuala Lumpur in her early days as a volunteer at York’s Theatre Royal.
Ultimately The Hive is more than a place to learn to act or sing, Hannah believes.
“Some of our youngsters do go on to study acting at university and take to the stage but, to me, it’s not really about creating the next generation of actors or actresses. It’s about giving them the skills and self-confidence in public to equip them for the rest of their lives.”
l More info at www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk