By JULIEN BOAST Chief Executive & Creative Director
Photography by Hugh Hastings
Our CEO and Creative Director Julien Boast lifts the lid on the story around the birth of the Cornwall Playhouse in 2021, and the challenges of delivering the UK's most westerly largescale theatre...
It wasn’t only the building that craved a reset, the whole organisation needed a rethink to realise its true potential.
My aspirations to turn Hall for Cornwall from a venue with its roots as a city hall into one of the most respected UK regional theatres were forged early on. Whilst regional theatre has been the mainstay of my career, the challenges of reinventing a much-loved one to create a new, sustainable organisation in a small city on the furthest edge of the UK, were significant.
Carleen Anderson performs 'Melior Opus Griot', photography by Hugh Hastings
My commercial and subsidised theatre expertise gained in Southampton, then Coventry and latterly Brighton, certainly came to the fore. Each has a sense of place, none more so than Coventry, which navigated its way out of the pandemic to deliver a tenacious year as City of Culture. After it was bombed in the war Basil Spence, the Modernist architect, built Coventry’s new cathedral and he designed the universities in Brighton and Southampton too. His buildings are integral to placemaking in these cities - he created spaces for people with exquisite attention to detail enhanced by art and furniture designed to complete
What drew me to Cornwall was its rich cultural history in performance, which began in the late 14th century with Medieval mystery plays written in Middle Cornish with Latin stage directions.
Photography by French and Tye Architects
The region instantly radiated a distinct sense of place elevated by its history and strong cultural legacy
I was keenly aware of how Alan Ayckbourn and Philip Hedley, esteemed regional theatre stalwarts had embraced placemaking and cultivated long-standing relationships with the venues they are most famously associated with - the Stephen Joseph and Stratford East. In the 70s, 80s and 90s they regenerated their theatres for longevity and with a national gaze.
At Hall for Cornwall it was difficult to turbo charge change within the confines of its existing business model further compounded by the lack of fundraising prowess and low levels of revenue funding available. Evolving from a city hall into a theatre without any dedicated industry expertise meant the place was in and out of funding stabilisation programmes for years.
Young dancers perform in our 'Youth Celebration' Showcase, photography by Hugh Hastings
As we drove to Cornwall I remember promising my husband that it would be for five years. Looking back, I must have had an inkling that creating meaningful change would take far longer. In those early days of repositioning the Hall we achieved a much-needed commercial fix by selling more tickets which quickly gained people’s confidence. It was in my first year that we added a £1 million of box office sales and improved the quality of visiting productions. We were moving in the right direction.
Forging strong creative alliances is vital and we enticed various national companies to visit and/ or become partners with Birmingham Royal Ballet the first to show faith in coming to Cornwall. We also took on an ailing arts charity, and despite the early unpopularity of this, Cornwall’s arts sector is now very supportive - and Husa, our arts development arm, thrives.
Art students from Falmouth University in the HUSA work space, photography by Hugh Hastings
To ignite a major capital redevelopment project far from London our 10 year business plan was twofold; to forge a coalition of significant partners who wanted to come on the journey with us, and of course, build a fully equipped theatre with a skilled workforce operating in agile ways.
Along the way every partner encouraged us at every stage
Eventually nine core funding partners and ten trusts and foundations joined us, and we garnered support from a bounty of people, including three Council Leaders and three Chief Executives, our two local MPs and a dynamic bunch of experts - everyone saw the benefits of having such an extraordinary cultural venue for Cornwall.
To get this level of buy-in we built our business model from the ground up to maximise on everything a Grade II* listed building could offer - and there’s more to do on the latter.
An important partner was Burrell Foley Fischer, our architects whose design concepts were both brave and deeply rooted in Cornwall’s theatrical traditions. Even from their initial sketches I could see the auditorium creating a dynamic relationship between those on stage and those enjoying the performance.
Earlier I wrote of Basil Spence, and I’ve realised how much I miss his buildings given they’d been a constant presence in my life. When you walk into Coventry Cathedral there’s something very elemental about the space with its fine mix of glass, exposed stone and woodwork. This attention to detail is further enhanced with purposely placed artwork by Elizabeth Frink and Graham Sutherland and together they create a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere.
Grayson Perry performs on our stage, photography by Hugh Hastings
It’s perhaps clear to see in our new building that Spence is still present after all. Of course, you’re not entering a place of worship, but my brief to the architects was to give our visitors pause for thought, create a moment for them to take stock and gather their thoughts - they totally understood what I was getting at, but at the time I’m sure I had all the hallmarks of being a demanding client. When we closed the doors for construction in 2018, we set about imaging what our future could be. Little did we know we’d be rebuilding during a global pandemic.
Cornwall deserves access to the best performances and cultural opportunities and that’s exactly what we deliver
Although first and foremost a theatre I wanted us to be entrepreneurial in how we utilised the building, to open it up to activities and industries that could animate it in different ways. I wanted us to create a bold space where people (our visitors, the performers and the team) are the stars of the building. I’m excited about them being able to go on a voyage of discovery, connecting with and experiencing the variety and breadth of our programming.
Whilst nurturing local artists and companies and creating head room for new work and ideas, I’ve kept in touch with the national companies I’ve worked with over the years. Strong relations with and the quality of work from the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rambert and Wise Children have elevated what appears on our main stage. In the poorest county in England with low cultural provision ambition matters - and as a catalyst for new generations of artists, creators and theatre-goers giving young people the chance to shine on and off stage is central to this.
A local dancer performs on our stage, photography by Hugh Hastings
One of the unique things about the new Hall is that everyone who works here is on the shop floor. Open and visible whether they’re in the box office, a technician or rehearsing on stage - our visitors get to see the working life of a theatre. The visitor is what binds us as a team with customer loyalty as a driver. With more than half of Cornwall’s households on our database already hardly anyone in the county hasn’t met us, and with this, there’s a deep-rooted trust in what we’re about. We go out of our way to attract and appeal to the widest possible audience, engaging people of all ages from Launceston to Land’s End and beyond.
Our ambitions don’t stop at reopening
Hall for Cornwall is a great proposition and we’re looking ahead for new funders and partners who share our vision. Investing in us gets a great return as everything is channelled into creating impactful work - and our work goes beyond what’s on the main stage. We have plans afoot to foster new ideas around heritage, increase our outreach potential to engage people from the most disadvantaged communities, and we’re looking at the potential to create qualification-led programmes inspired by our local university.
Photography by Hugh Hastings
We invest in people and culture and are focused on creating the best possible place for them to thrive. With a restless curiosity, and like those early theatre-making pioneers, we want to creatively disrupt what a regional theatre can be. If you’ve not had the chance to visit and see what we’re doing for yourself, do join us on the edge and be part of Hall for Cornwall’s next chapter.
I look forward to welcoming you,
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