By Graham Chalmers
The good old bad old days of Andrew Manley were thrilling but, ultimately, close to disastrous for Harrogate Theatre.
His adventurous, occasionally brilliant, stage productions had their fans and the national press loved him.
But this sometimes inspirational figure’s experimental approach did nothing for large sections of the town itself.
The end of his tenure as this gilded theatre’s artistic director in 1997 left the sound of tumbleweed at Harrogate Theatre.
These were tricky days for Harrogate Theatre. Another daring production by another director – Steaming, performed inside the Turkish Baths on Parliament Street - ended in financial catastrophe in 2005.
But things change. Ten years or so after the start of a radical overhaul of how the theatre operates, it’s now enjoying a golden era.
To walk through its doors these days is to feel the buzz – a passion for what it does blended with a flair for popular taste.
There’s never been a wider variety or greater number of shows serving up every type of entertainment to Harrogate audiences – from Miss Marple to Jimmy Carr.
The theatre even programmes many of the shows people enjoy at the Royal Hall, as well as Harrogate International Centre.
Like all great theatres, there’s more to Harrogate’s in these glory days than box office success.
Looking to the future, work is on-going to restore and improve its nationally-respected, ornate Frank Tugwell building on Oxford Street.
And new efforts are being made to forge still closer ties between itself and the broader community.
To that end a new and enhanced membership scheme is to be launched shortly for individuals wishing to support Harrogate Theatre.
It’s the result of a merger of two separate existing of organisations – the Friends of Harrogate Theatre, which has a proud pedigree going back to 1960, and the Harrogate Theatre Fundraising Committee.
Ellie Wadsworth, head of development and partnerships at Harrogate Theatre said the theatre was keen to give something back for all the support it receives.
She said: “It’s inspiring to know there is such genuine affection for our Victorian playhouse. It’s time to acknowledge those who are committed to the future of Harrogate Theatre.”
The unveiling of Harrogate Theatre Supporters on September 24 will introduce a whole host of exclusive offers and exciting behind the scenes invitations for anyone who loves their theatre.
The new group’s goal is as much social as practical, says Anne Cherry, who has been chairman of both the Friends and the Fundraisers and will reprise her role in the Supporters.
She said: “There will be talks, tours, VIP receptions, regular newsletters and an invitation to the theatre’s annual birthday party in January. We are all so privileged to have this beautiful theatre, I can’t think of a better way of showing appreciation than becoming a Supporter.”
Anne’s love of Harrogate Theatre began 30 years ago when her daughter joined Harrogate Youth Theatre.
A family connection is a common entry point for many of the volunteers who spend their time and money supporting the theatre as ushers or fundraisers.
Youth theatre is one way in which Harrogate Theatre has always given something back to the community. It’s been giving even more recently with the opening of The Hive next door.
Under the sure hand of the theatre’s head of education, Hannah Draper, the number of classes offering lessons to youngsters to learn singing and stage skills has been steadily increasing.
The Hive also gives Harrogate Theatre the opportunity to offer a space for the whole community to put to good use for almost anything they fancy.
From the days of struggle in the past to the days of splendour now, a lot has changed at Harrogate Theatre.
Even the theatre’s characterful Circle Bar will be put to greater use in future, especially during next month’s Harrogate Comedy Festival, said Rachel Auty, Harrogate Theatre’s media and campaigns manager. She said: “Harrogate Theatre is an absolute gem right in the centre of this wonderful town.
“We want the local community to feel that this is their theatre and for them to be able to enjoy that on a number of levels.
“The Circle Bar in particular is a space we feel has huge potential. Our annual Harrogate comedy Festival ‘Big Weekend’ takes place on October 10 and 11 this year when the theatre will have essentially an‘open door’ policy.
“And we intend to explore in future how we might open the stunning theatre spaces to the community on a regular basis.”
All in all, it feels like Harrogate Theatre has come full circle from its original days of Victorian splendour.
And it is keen to keep improving and keep looking forward.
Anne Cherry said: “I feel very excited about the prospects for Harrogate Theatre Supporters and the prospect of attracting many new members. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
Harrogate Theatre Supporters is launched on September 24.
Existing members of Friends of Harrogate Theatre can retain membership in the new group.
Membership starts at £30 annually with additional reductions for joint and family memberships.
There is also the opportunity to become a major donor at £500 annually with a wide range of benefits.