The Volunteers Who’ve Pitched In To Keep UK Theatre Going

Wander into Leicester’s Curve theatre and you might think gravity is playing tricks on you. “You’ll just be walking along and see someone spinning on their head,” says Jim who frequently encounters breakdancers practising in the foyer. “Whenever I walk past, they say, ‘Do you want a go?’” He shakes his head. “I pull a muscle just looking at them!”

Jim, 64, has been volunteering at Curve for four years, checking tickets, giving directions and helping people to their seats. “The show starts as soon as they walk in the door,” he says warmly. “I know that just by having a smile, you can make somebody’s day.” Around the country, theatres are brightened and bolstered by volunteers like him, a too-often uncelebrated group of individuals who offer up time, effort and energy for free.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Lizzie Owen, 45, who is one of 15 volunteers at Curve. “I’ve loved theatre since I was a child, but as a wheelchair user, a career in theatre back then wasn’t really possible.” Volunteering has brought out skills she didn’t know she had. “I thought I’d struggle talking to people I didn’t know,” she says, “but there’s something about being here. I feel lighter, I’m more confident, and I can talk to anybody.” This sense of generosity seems baked into the building. During the pandemic, Curve’s artistic director, Nikolai Foster, became a volunteer vaccinator, protecting the community while stages were dark.

‘I’m more confident’ … Lizzie Owen and Jim, volunteers at Curve, Leicester.

A theatre belongs to the people who make it more than just a building. That includes the volunteers just as much as it does the stars, staff and audience. Jim and Lizzie both describe volunteering as a mutually beneficial experience; in exchange for skill and toil, a well-managed theatre can hand back a vibrant sense of belonging. “It’s so friendly here,” affirms 78-year-old Pete Brookes, who has a T-shirt declaring him to be Battersea Arts Centre’s longest-serving volunteer. “They seem to pick the right people.” He taps the table in a bright office at the top of the theatre. “There were only a couple of people I didn’t like,” he lowers his voice, “but they got rid of them.”

For over two decades, Pete and his wife Joan helped out at BAC together, having visited the building since the 1970s. They aged paper in coffee for Punchdrunk, lit fires, fed resident cat Pluto, worked front-of-house, and wrote letters to save the building when it was in danger of closing. In 2008, they were given an award at Wandsworth Town Hall. A framed dedication to Joan, who died in 2021, sits just off the old town hall’s foyer.

After the catastrophic fire in 2015, which severely damaged much of the Grand Hall, volunteers played an extraordinary role in BAC’s recovery. Support piled in from the local community, offering space, kit, time. “It’s not been about money,” then artistic director David Jubb wrote in the weeks after the fire. “It’s been about your acts of kindness, it’s been about you volunteering time. Our recovery belongs to you.”

Volunteering isn’t just an activity for later life. For the last two years, 28-year-old Chanté Frazer and 24-year-old Diogo Varela, both actors, have been supporting Talawa theatre company as young trustees. Varela applied for the role eager to know more about what went into programming a theatre but unclear what being a trustee would involve. “In the first board meeting I didn’t understand most of what was going on,” he admits. But with time he has grown in confidence, knowledge and skill. “It’s allowed me to grow a lot as an artist.” Plus, he adds, he enjoys getting to know before anyone else which shows are coming up.

‘It’s allowed me to grow a lot as an artist’ … Diogo Varela

Talawa champions Black theatre, with a focus on work from the Caribbean diaspora. “A lot of our community don’t feel we have access to theatre,” says Chanté, “partly because of the price mark, and partly because some people don’t feel they see people in theatre who look like them. What Talawa is doing is breaking the stigma, to help people understand that theatre is accessible to us too.” As young trustees, she and Diogo have a hand in influencing the theatre’s marketing, the types of stories they tell and the expansion of their audiences. “Of course being a volunteer isn’t paid, so it’s a choice,” Chanté says, “but the reward you get is the knowledge, the confidence and the voice you have. Being a trustee really helps you be in the midst of it all.” Diogo agrees: “It’s an exchange of energy and knowledge … and free tickets!What else could you want?”

While organisations like Curve, BAC and Talawa are supported by volunteers, others rely on them entirely. When 81-year-old Jan Bland moved house, the first thing she did was find a local theatre to join. Fifty years later, she’s one of the longest-serving members of Harborough theatre, a space run entirely by members who volunteer. “I’ve done just about everything here,” Jan says proudly, before repeating what I hear almost every other volunteer say: “It’s almost like a second home.” If we dedicate enough time to a building, it seems to work its way into our bones, becoming far more than just a stage for other people’s stories.

‘Second home’ … Jan on the set of The Pillowman at Harborough theatre. Photograph: Courtesy: Jan Bland

A decade after Jan, Marilyn and Ralph Holderness rocked up at Harborough theatre. Their two young daughters wanted to be in the pantomime, so Marilyn was dragged along for two weeks as their chaperone. When they wanted to do it again the year after, Ralph insisted he wouldn’t be left sitting at home. “So you came along and asked if anyone needed help backstage,” Marilyn says to her husband, who nods. “That was the start of my apprenticeship,” he says. Year three, and Marilyn, a former hairdresser, sacked off chaperoning to join Ralph as a stage manager. “We got known as the A Team,” she giggles. He’s now 80 and she’s 76. They’re still a core part of Harborough theatre, stage managing, working front of house and generally mucking in.

Between the three of them, they’ve seen and done it all: Ralph has made endless objects fall off the walls while Marilyn has been the back-end of both a camel and a dragon. They’ve encountered people from all walks of life, too. “I had a couple of undertakers in a play I was directing,” remembers Jan, who still teaches. “Apparently they learned their lines in the hearse.” The team continues to sell out most shows in their 115-seat theatre. Performances run for a week every day except Monday, when the church next door hosts bell-ringing practice.

It’s not just about the plays. At Curve, Jim recently helped out at graduations that were being held in the theatre, and this Christmas Day Pete volunteered at BAC when the building opened for a community meal. “It was beautiful,” he says. “They laid the tables out like a banquet, piled the meals right up.” Anyone was welcome as long as their name was on the list. Even then, he whispers, they didn’t turn anyone away.

Theatres are extraordinarily lucky to benefit from the generosity of volunteers around the country, these good neighbours who help out for love above all else. But when the right structures of support are in place, these buildings can give back in spades. With friendships, love stories and self-confidence built up over years of voluntary service, the walls are embedded with meaning and memories. “You take so much and you can give so much as well,” confirms Diogo.

But from what they all say, volunteering should be approached with some caution; once you’re in, it seems, it can be very hard to get out. “I’ll be here as long as I’m useful,” Jim nods dutifully. Lizzie agrees wholeheartedly. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.” Pete has lived just across the road from BAC for four decades. After three years living there without Joan, he has decided it’s time to move on to somewhere new. “But I don’t want to be too far,” he says, patting the table, “because I don’t want to leave this place.”

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