A new hope

When Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, UK, opened in 2015 it was somewhat of an anomaly. While other small-scale theatre spaces were closing down (the city lost three such spaces in 2014 alone) here was a new contender – and with 120 seats, it boasted a considerably higher capacity than your average fringe venue. Further, the new owners said they’d be focussing on musical theatre, something almost never seen on the Manchester fringe. Surely it couldn’t work?

Well it did, and now two years later Hope Mill is firmly established in the Manchester theatre community. In this time it has produced five musicals, including one world premiere, and seen two of its productions transfer to London. Surprisingly – and somewhat inadvertently – it has also become one of the city’s trendiest wedding venues.

To find out how all this happened, I meet with co-founder and co-artistic director Joe Houston for a coffee and a catch up in the theatre bar. We begin by talking about why Houston – and his husband Will Whelton, who co-owns the company – wanted to take the unusual step of opening a theatre in the first place.

“We’re both trained in musical theatre, and ever since I first met Will he’s always said he’d love to produce,” remembers Houston. “We were killing ourselves working as waiters in London, just in case we got an audition for a show, which becomes less and less likely once you’ve been graduated for a few years. Will was offered a job up here in 2014, so that’s how the move to Manchester came about.”

Whelton and Houston started looking around for a venue to put on their own productions. After a few false starts the couple came across the vacant space at Hope Mill.

However, the owners were not initially convinced that Whelton and Houston were the right tenants: “The landlords were reluctant to give it to us – they just didn’t get how a theatre would make money. But funnily enough that worked for us; it meant we had to go away and become business men and not just performers who wanted to put on shows. So we had to work out how many coffees, beers and wines we had to sell to cover the rent, what we needed to charge for hire and so on.”

Eventually the landlords were convinced and Hope Mill Theatre opened its doors in October 2015. But, says Houston, the actual running of the company has not followed those original paper plans.

“In our initial business plan we put down we’d do one wedding a year, but in the first year we did eight, the following year 12 and next year we’ll do another 12. The weddings are what keeps us open and without them we might be struggling.”

As for the theatrical side of things, Whelton and Houston quickly formed a partnership with London-based producer Katy Lipson. In its first year they produced new adaptations of Parade and Hair, with the latter transferring to London. In the following season it programmed three more musicals, including a world premiere of Yank! by David Zellnik, which also went to London.

Yank! at Hope Mill Theatre © Anthony Robling
Yank! at Hope Mill Theatre © Anthony Robling

Explains Houston: “We make no money from these in-house productions, the idea is that a show will go on to have a life beyond our initial production. We hope the right title will come along and we can take it on to the next level. The ultimate dream is to find the next big British musical.”

What advice would Houston give to someone looking to launch their own venue? “Don’t do it,” he laughs. “But on a serious note, it is a lot of work – so you have to be very sure this is what you want. Beyond that, having the security of other revenue streams is important: a flexible space that people can use for filming, photography, rehearsals or weddings. Finally, having a niche – musical theatre – and doing it independently has helped us.

This article is an extract from a full-length feature in November edition of IAM. To subscribe to the magazine and read the full article click here