Light fantastic future

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SHEFFIELD’S oldest theatre is about to enter a new era with its first professional programme of events in 2012 which will include premiering a homegrown new play and staging two festivals, one for Shakespeare the other showcasing new writing.

After existing for many years as the home of amdram company the Dilys Guite Players with occasional one-off bookings for music and small-scale drama, the decision was taken last year to appoint an artistic director, Martin Derbyshire, and a chief executive, Matt Risby.

Derbyshire has worked as a freelance in theatre for several years, working in Creative Development at Sheffield Theatres and with local touring companies Reform and Concept in various capacities from stage manager to director. Add to that his parents have been stalwarts of the DGP for many years.

Risby is a freelance film-maker who worked on the crew of Four Lions and has experience of fringe theatre in Sheffield. It was when he was commissioned to make a film for the Crucible Theatre’s production of Alice for interactive performances with schools that he first met Derbyshire.

“Having known this venue for most of my life and performed here with Reform, I knew its potential,” says the artistic director, “and I know Sheffield lacks a small to mid-scale theatre. At the same time the Lantern needed to change direction. It couldn’t sustain five weeks a year of amateur stage.”

The 50-strong membership of the DGP agreed to separate themselves from the management of the Lantern. “Well, it was either that or close and now they don’t have to worry about the upkeep of the building,” says Risby who at first found himself working pretty much full-time on maintenance and improvements.

Long-term, the building in Kenwood Park Road, Nether Edge, needs a new roof and a rehearsal space and dressing rooms to replace the present arrangements in outbuildings at the back.

Although Grade 2 listed, it is unlikely to get a heritage grant so it will require fundraising.

The first step by the new regime was “the not very revolutionary idea” of getting in companies with a box office split rather than having them simply hire the premises as happened before.

“We pay the bills and split the profits and last year in Matt’s stewardship we trebled the income,” reports Derbyshire. “And now we have a programme with something on every week”

The size of the Lantern – its capacity is only 84 seats – is a factor in the kind of show that it can attract.

The spring/summer season will begin with innovative company Zoo Indigo’s interactive multimedia performance Under the Covers (January 27), combining both the virtual world and the theatre space in which to create live performance with pre-recorded and live footage.

Derbyshire and Risby themselves have co-written Order (February 23-25) marking the company’s debut production, a dark, brooding and emotional love story about what happens when the lines between reality and fantasy become dangerously blurred.

Other highlights include the return of Iestyn Edwards with My Tutu’s Gone AWOL ( March 1-3), Derbyshire’s Cotton Grass Theatre Company on tour with a new play by Berlie Doherty, Thin Air (March 30-31), and Bryony Kimmings performing 7 Days Drunk (April 20), a comic one-woman show investigating the historical links between artists and mind-enhancing drugs.

Sheffield chanteuse Rosie Brown will present Where Light Falls; Songs About Joni Mitchell (March 9-10) and renowned Senegalese musician Diabel Cissokho brings his brand of upbeat West African groove playing the kora (April 13).

The Shakespeare Festival will celebrate the work of the Bard with various events such as workshops with Griffin Theatre Arts, presented by RSC director Helen Leblique, Shakespeare in a Week: Comedy of Errors, for teenagers. The DGP will present Shakespeare: Method in the Madness, a selection of Shakespeare’s most iconic scenes, wildly reimagined.

The New Writing festival is set to include a workshop with playwright Richard Hurford and the return after a three-year hiatus of spoken word night Words Aloud.

A comedy club will be launched in April and there are also plans to screen films eventually.

“We are pushing the arts centre feel with something different happening every week,” says Risby. “A week before our debut production of Order, for example, we’ll have two bald blokes playing heavy metal covers and a children’s puppet show.”

The immediate target is to bring in the locals of Nether Edge. “So many times we hear people saying, I didn’t know this was here, and that’s a real challenge but we’ve found that once they find us they do come back,” says Derbyshire. “Then there are people who associate it with an amateur venue.”

“What’s been here for years and years is an arts centre that hasn’t been used,” adds Risby.

In a sense they are bringing Sheffield’s oldest theatre full circle. “We have found the deeds that confirm the date it was built was 1893 which puts it first,” he says, “and there is some evidence that the owner, William Webster, brought in professional companies to perform for his family and friends.”