Famous Doncaster live entertainment venues appeal to public for help to get them through lockdown

It was due to be one of the cultural events of the year.

By David Kessen
Thursday, 9th July 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 9th July 2020, 9:15 am

The Royal Ballet, one of the best known organisations in the country, was due to perform for the first time at Cast, Doncaster’s main town centre theatre, after work to bring them to town from the Doncaster Creates culture project and MP Ed MIliband. Cultural groups were thrilled with the news when it was announced last year.

But then lockdown happened. While last week should have seen some of the most talented dancers in the UK on stage at the Sir Nigel Gresley Square venue in front of a packed venue, instead, it was empty.

Although perhaps one of the highest profile, the loss of the Royal Ballet show was just one of hundreds of arts performances that have been lost since lockdown started in March.

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Cast Theatre, Doncaster. Picture: Google

Many venues across Doncaster have been hit, of all different sizes.

And Cast, run as a registered charity, is one of many venues that have been in the pocket.

It has seen nearly all its staff furloughed, and it is still not certain when its stage will be back in use.

Director Deborah Rees says by the end of the financial year, lockdown could have cost the venue hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Woolpack, Market Place, Doncaster. Picture: Google

“It has been tough since lockdown,” she said. “Income stopped overnight. We have handed back quite a lot of money in refunds, and we’ve given compensation to some smaller theatre companies for losing dates. It has been a balance of trying to look after the sector, with people like freelancers who are affected, and trying to navigate a path not knowing when we can re-open.

“The job retention scheme has helped. We can't do indoor performances. We had been due to do an outdoor arts event in September, but it looks like that may not happen, as when we have done those in recent years they have attracted 4,000 people. You can only have 30 people outside together at present.

“We’ve had well over 100 productions that have had to be cancelled. Some were just for one night. Some were community activities.”

Despite all that has happened, bosses feel the theatre is secure, with certain provisions in place. It has recently secured a £33,000 grant from the Arts Council to help it until September, and there are hopes that it may be able to get some of the money recently announced by the Department of Culture Media and Sport to help the arts through the crisis.

The Woolpack when it was ble to open

Last week, Cast put an appeal out for supporters to back it by taking out membership packages, from between £2.50 a month to £10 a month, to help the venue through the rough waters it finds itself on.

The response has pleased Deborah. “We have doubled our membership in a week, since putting the appeal out,” she said. That and the grant have helped.”

In the meantime, the venue is looking at what it can still do to engage with its audience.

One way is a tie-in with the Royal Ballet that will see local groups create their own original piece of dance on the themes of lockdown and social distancing.

The Woolpack on a gig night

This project, a first for The Royal Ballet, will culminate in a film that will premiere on Saturday September 5 online through the Royal Opera House’s YouTube and Facebook channels and be broadcast in Doncaster town centre.

The theatre is looking at what other activities it can get involved with in terms of public participation, such as schemes for the school holidays that can be done in small groups with social distancing. And it has an associate producer working with local artists to help them find funding channels and make applications. There is also a plan to offer artist work on online projects.

There are hopes that the Royal Ballet will return at some stage in the future to perform.

“Membership is the best way for the public to support us,” said Deborah. “Or treating ticket refunds as a donation. But we are mindful that there are people out there who may have lost work through lockdown.

“We’re always cheered up by supportive messages on social media.”

While Cast may be one of the biggest venues in Doncaster, The Woolpack at Market Places is one of the smallest.

Our support local campaign aims to help local busineses get through the aftermath of lockdown

While some of the doors of pubs and bars in the town centre are now open, theirs remains closed.

Boss Chris Jones, who runs the venue with business partner Stewart Cantwell, does not feel able to re-open yet as a bar only. Live music is his niche market.

The 35-year-old from Armthorpe has been involved in Doncaster’s music scene for many years, running the Woolpack for several of those.

They may not host household names, but they provide a venue for many Doncaster bands to ply their trade, and have seen international performers on their stage including Hed (PE) and Crazy Town.

“Things had been starting to improve after the recession just before lockdown happened,” said Chris. “Things had bottomed out and started to work back up again. Things had been tough when they closed Silver Street too.

“The bands' pay comes out of bar takings, as 99 per cent of the things we run are free.

“Now we are just down to zero income. We can’t open at present. Live music has always been our unique selling point. We can’t even do open mike nights because there is no singing allowed. You can only have music if it is something that people can talk over.

“It means musicians are out of work if playing live is their livelihood. They are having to find temporary jobs.

“I’m concerned, because I’ve no income. It is eating into my personal money trying to pay rent. We could close for good if the money runs out. I’m just trying all I can to be ready to re-open when we can. We are one of the few places that puts on local acts, giving people their chance.”

The Woolpack is one of a number of venues nationally that have joined Music Venues Alliance, which is currently running a Save Our Venues campaign. Its members are currently crowdfunding to build up a fund to help venues stay afloat.

It is still not known if they will get any help from a fund to help cultural venues set up by the Government.

Supporters can pledge donations by logging on here.

“We’ve set up a crowdfunder, but don’t like to push it, because we don’t like asking for money,” said Chris.

“If they created a vaccine, we’d open tomorrow. But we can’t go on forever like this.

“And if there are no live venues, music will disappear.”

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