Client Story

Factory of Creativity

  • Location: Manchester
  • Sector: Arts, Creative and Digital Services
  • Amount: £200k
  • Purpose: Growth
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William grew up on a farm in Macclesfield, a ‘country bumpkin’.

“Growing up I knew I was different. Thankfully, my mum was musical and liked us listening to musicals – but that was the only access I had to the world of theatre, apart from the occasional panto.”

Listening to Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat in the car when they went on holiday, allowed him to dream.

“There was something about those stories told through song. I connected to Joseph, his brothers didn’t like him, and he was rejected but ended up becoming someone. Growing up, I imagined I could achieve something, even though I was different and not having a great time at school. That’s the importance of theatre.”

With no other gay people in his life, musical theatre was his only comfort. His A-Levels saw him on a path of science and maths, until he finally allowed himself to ‘give in’ and join the Amateur Dramatic Society.

William graduated from Lane Theatre Arts, on the outskirts of London, in 2011.

Theatrical tours took him across the UK, London and Australia. Then a few years in, a medical problem led to surgery on his vocal cords. Unable to work on stage, he ‘fell out of love’ with the industry.

“I think my academic brain kicked back into action, looking at ways I could stay in the industry but not be so reliant on my body.”

William started producing shows and realised he found joy in creating opportunity for others.

“It brought a new passion and love, and that sort of led on to the idea behind Hope Mill Theatre, and what’s now Factory of Creativity.”

What followed is a story of, in William’s words, ambition, passion and nativity.

He moved to Manchester to be nearer family, with his now husband, Joseph. After lots of research, they saw a need for an accessible performing arts venue for emerging artists.

A former Grade 2 Cotton Mill, with no heating, basic plumbing and little infrastructure was advertised on Gumtree. They loved it. They told the landlord they’d take it. He refused based on the fact the pair had no business experience. And he couldn’t imagine a theatre ever working in the former industrial district of Ancoats, notorious for deprivation and crime.

After five months of persevering, the landlord agreed.

“October 2015, we got the keys and thought oh, what have we done. There was a lot of work.”

The pair got a £5k start-up loan each and threw in their savings, doing a lot of decorating themselves. They even lived in the theatre for the sixth months. Every time a play made money it was ploughed back into improving the facilities. They soon began to win awards and critical acclaim.

“We got a lot of industry recognition very early on and I think it’s because we filled a gap in the regional market, providing opportunity and lots of artists were coming through our doors and developing their craft.”

In the first couple of years, they produced 13 musicals, 2 plays, 5 London transfers and UK tours.

“At that point me and Joseph were doing everything, 100-hour weeks, cleaning the toilets, doing everything we could to make it work financially.”

Running the business-side of the organisation, from doing the books to manning the kitchen, was all-consuming.

“We sacrificed a lot to make it work, but we always saw the bigger picture and what we believed it had the power to do.”

They knew as a Limited Company that the future of the 140-seat theatre was at risk, and it curtailed their outreach and community work. They wanted to be able to offer pay-what-you-can schemes, and pay for children and local families to experience theatre, often for the first time.

“We knew the importance of having a cultural offer here because we were the only cultural offer.”

What followed was a long bureaucratic journey to turn it into a charity and they needed working capital, which is where Key Fund stepped in.

Recently, they took on a new space 50 yards from the theatre and refurbished it into a community hub. It offers a performance room and community kitchen; 10 members of the local community sit on its council.

“The biggest reason for this space is the Hope Mill Theatre School, which is opening in June – it was delayed a year because of Covid. This is one of the biggest objectives we had as a charity – education.”

William’s drive is to ensure all children can access the confidence and communication skills the performing arts instils.

“A lot of people who end up in the arts do come from privilege and money as it’s so expensive to take singing or dance. We want to provide affordable training in a Saturday school for three hours, for ages 4 to 18, and 50% of the places will be free for parents who can’t afford it.”

They Key Fund support allowed them to become a charity in November 2019. Four months later, Covid closed the venue.

Keen to offer a “glimmer of hope” for their industry when the lights went dark, they rose to the challenge. Their success with audiences saw £25k in donations in the first few weeks. Grants alongside online ticket sales ensured they were able to pay every contracted artist, employing over 60 freelance artists in one show alone.

Their community play reading group went on Zoom, an online musical theatre cabaret, filmed in actors’ homes, streamed free to an audience of 8,000, and they launched a play writing initiative with award-winning playwright and Coronation Street writer, Jonathan Harvey. Online shows continued with a streaming of Godspell, and a production of Rent, filmed and streamed to 7,000 households.

It moved its annual LGBTQI+ festival, ‘Turn on Fest’, online in March 2021, supporting four LGBTQI+ artists with Q&As and free webinars for trans representation in the arts sector.

“It was very successful, and because it was online it was affordable and free and reached a lot of people. It was important to us, as there’s been no PRIDEs, no socialisation, which is so important to that community. It streamed to a few thousand.”

The show will go on.

Key Fund finance helped its infrastructure as well as employ more staff to help them grow.

“Key Fund have always been supportive of our journey. When we found out about them, it felt too good to be true because as a new legal entity, we couldn’t get grants or loans. Without Key Fund we certainly wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now, and might still be trying to find someone to help us to get the charity started. Already the good that’s come out of us becoming a charity is huge, and we’ve been able to achieve so many of our objectives. We’re really pleased it’s gone the way it has, we’re just very grateful.”

Actor Janelle Thompson is the facilitator at Hope Mill Theatre’s Play Reading community group.

“The Arts have been a lifeline for people in lockdown,” Janelle said. “Music, dramas, entertainment – and the industry has been largely ignored. It’s devastating. It feels personal, like you’ve just been disregarded. I’m angry and I’m hurt.”

Janelle Thompson got into drama by accident.

“My mum said I needed a hobby – go to drama club, and that was it.”

Originally from down south, she moved to Preston to go to university. Alongside acting, Janelle took education and community theatre jobs, before finding an agent to focus more on acting.

“I heard a bit about Hope Mill and how brilliant they were, and I thought they were definitely people I need to be involved with.”

As a black actor, she is passionate that Hope Mill Theatre exists, for its inclusive programming and its location.

“It’s hugely important, for the residents and surrounding areas, to have somewhere to go where they can see magnificent productions and don’t have to pay West End prices or travel to London. They have The Wiz on at Christmas and I’m absolutely beside myself, I cannot wait to see it! It’s an all-black cast, it’s going to be brilliant! They seem to take pieces of work and make it their own, and that’s thrilling. The sets are always beautiful and exciting, it makes you want to get involved. It’s aspirational.”

During lockdown, she submitted monologues to an online project the theatre was running, then got involved in a research role.

“Off the back of that, they got in touch and said we think you’d be great to host the play readings. I thought it was a really wonderful opportunity to dust off my facilitation skills.”

The play reading group had been running for a couple of years, inviting people from the local community to read and talk about a script over a cup of tea. In lockdown, it moved to Zoom, with a ‘pay as you feel’ model. It’s new home after Zoom will be the theatre’s new community hub.

Around 15 people take part on Zoom.

“There is a wide age range, people who I’m guessing have been in the Arts in some capacity before but are now retired, there are students, people my age almost 40, people in their late 20s; it’s a really wide-ranging age group, and people in different stages of their creative journey.”

Janelle started facilitating the Zooms in February 2021.

“The play readings have been magnificent. They bring joy to people. It’s great for people who are creative to keep some form of creativity going during this time, it brings people together.”

“The last play reading, the play was quite short looking at the issue of suicide, so I made sure to have time afterwards to debrief and check in and make sure people are okay. We had an opportunity just to chat and talk about how we were feeling.”

Art and creativity are, she said, “vitally important”, and it’s a job she feels compelled to do, as a vocation, for her own happiness and well-being.

“I’ve seen people who haven’t had a sniff of work in more than 12 months and it’s utterly, utterly devastating. It’s not something you choose to go into because the money is great, you do it because you love it. To not be able to do the thing you love is crushing, and then to have to put that to one side and work in a supermarket to get by is devastating. It’s not to say working in a supermarket is lowly; it’s just not what you trained for, or your vocation.”

The work at the theatre during lockdown has provided Janelle with some financial buffer.

“It’s been hugely important because I’ve had that bit of cash coming in, on top of that there’s the feeling that you’re being useful, enabling people to get involved.”

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