Little Lantern lights up for a big future

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IT is believed to be Sheffield’s oldest theatre and it’s in new hands and looking to a brighter future.

But not so long ago there was a real danger The Lantern Theatre might not survive, let alone play an ambitious role in the region’s professional circuit.

MATT RISBY AND MARTIN DERBYSHIRE''LANTERN THEATRE

MATT RISBY AND MARTIN DERBYSHIRE''LANTERN THEATRE

Set in the leafy streets of Nether Edge, this small venue with big ideas is looking to thrive by giving theatre-goers an alternative.

“Getting people through the door the first time is the problem,” says chief executive Matt Risby. “Once you get them in, they want to come back, but getting them here is the difficult part.

“We bump into so many people who live just round the corner and say ‘never heard of the place, never been’.

“Thankfully most discussions we’re having with those people now are happening in the building. They seem to be taken with it and want to come back and see things.”

MATT RISBY AND MARTIN DERBYSHIRE''LANTERN THEATRE

MATT RISBY AND MARTIN DERBYSHIRE''LANTERN THEATRE

And this spring Matt and artistic director Martin Derbyshire aim to back that up with the first professional season at Kenwood Park Road, having given a taste of what was to come at the back end of 2011.

The pair took over day-to-day running of the “undiscovered gem” and swiftly programmed about 75 per cent of the shows in the two months up until Christmas, including a captivating two nights of John Godber’s one man show Beef and contrasting edgy piece The End.

“We had targets for last season and bettered those targets,” says Martin, who believes a show such as Beef wouldn’t have been to Sheffield without The Lantern.

“That’s why this can be and is an important venue. Most other cities have this sort of venue housing those sort of shows. The word has got out to professional companies and we get emails every day.

“We’re now getting to a fortunate position where we can pick what we think is the best sort of show for this venue, across the board with music and comedy.

“Now we’re getting that reputation we’re going to try to maintain that quality.”

Certainly it is a dramatic shift in fortunes for a building that, while lying amid a suburb lined with million pound homes, was struggling to pay utility bills.

But the management duo brought skills from the wider world – of freelance film-making on titles such as Four Lions and Kill List in the case of Matt and a background that included 12 years touring with theatre companies from lighting technician to assistant director and creative development at the Crucible where Martin was concerned.

But the latter’s connection with The Lantern runs deep and involves a bit of ‘parental guilt’.

“My parents have been volunteers here for a long time,” says Martin. “This is really why I got into theatre in the first place. From the age of five I saw shows here and just got interested.

“Then the theatre was struggling and they needed help and advice so in 2010 I came in and did that. Then it got to a position they really needed to set up a proper professional trading arm.”

He met Matt when the pair worked on Alice Adventures, a film for Sheffield Theatres that Martin was in. “I gave up acting a while ago and that film proves why,” quips Martin.

The pair did some renovations and have further plans to extend into the yard that currently separates the rear of the Lantern stage from the dressing room, a former coaching house.

At first their role was advising the venue’s enthusiasts on how a theatre works. “A lot of people running it had no theatre background, they were just doing it as a hobby.

“Twenty years ago this place could stay open by doing a few amateur shows a year. The heat and lighting bills were really low. They’ve since gone through the roof.

“To maintain a venue like this costs a lot of money and they didn’t know how to make money.

“It was very much a ‘finding our feet’ exercise from September, but this next season we’ve been able to plan, structure it the way we want to make sure audiences don’t clash and we do something different every week.”

And with an address in one of the biggest and most diverse residential suburbs in the city, you would think they had a ready-made audience.

“But people live on this road and do not know this theatre is here, which is amazing,” reveals Martin.

“Or they know the building and don’t know it’s a working theatre. I do believe, though, once people come through the door and watch a show here they’ll want to come back.”

And if the turnover is anything to go by – since arriving they’ve trebled income by just doing things in a professional manner – their outlook is working.

“It got to the point last season where the board, four people doing it voluntarily, wasn’t sustainable,” says Matt. “Everyone was enjoying the work and the atmosphere, but it was a part-time job on top of a normal job, five or six nights a week.

“This was built as an amateur venue so we would never abandon those roots but we want to fill the diary and this venue with as much professional work and cultural exploits as we can.

“As opposed to being an amateur venue that occasionally does professional shows, we’d like to be a professional venue that has a really good amateur group based here.”