From fraud to rows about ticket prices, it’s been a rocky 12 months for the Leeds Grand. Now the theatre opens the doors and its accounts to arts correspondent Nick Ahad.
Theatre folk are a famously superstitious lot. Actors must follow a specific path from dressing room to stage, directors pray for a bad dress rehearsal which dictates a good opening night and then there is the greatest superstition of all - never utter ‘Macbeth’ once across the threshold.
The people who run Leeds Grand Theatre might well wonder if some reckless travelling player reeled off the name of the Scottish Play each and every night they were in the city, such has been the building’s fortunes over the past year.
The events of the last 12 months would seem like a farce were it not so very serious. The grand old lady of Leeds (the staff universally refer to the Grand as ‘she’) has been plagued by fraud convictions, cancelled performances, structural issues and a very public spat with a touring show’s producer.
And yet, there she still stands.
“This is a truly magnificent building, one of the jewels in the crown of Leeds and if it wasn’t here as a theatre, the council would still have to maintain the Grade II listed building and the city would have lost something incredibly important to its heritage,” says Chris Blythe, the CEO of the Grand Theatre independent charitable trust.
The Leeds Grand isn’t going to disappear from its somewhat inconspicuous home on New Briggate any time soon, but talk of what might happen if the theatre could no longer operate as the venue it is today is not quite the fiction you might imagine.
While the phantom of bad news stories hangs over the theatre, those behind the scenes recently agreed to both open up the theatre’s accounts and an honest conversation about how it ended up in such a mess.
It was back in 2015 that it became clear that all was not well. Leeds City Council, a stakeholder in the building, agreed to write off £379,000 of debt owed. The financial burden came from the Grand’s share of the bill for the revamp of Leeds City Varieties.
Debt cleared, as far as the public were concerned the Grand, not long entirely refurbished itself, was back on an even footing. Big shows, often straight from the West End, contuned to pull in the crowds, but backstage a different drama was being played out.
Last October it emerged that Peter Alp, the former heard of finance, had defrauded the organisation of £180,000. Currently serving a five year sentence after being found guilty at Leeds Crown Court, it was money the organisation could ill afford to lose.
“The court said that this person (he can’t bring himself to use Alp’s name) had abused the staff by taking control from them, but leaving them vulnerable to the consequences of what he had done,” says Blythe. “Fortunately, because this person was a council employee, Leeds City Council gave us an interest free loan to cover the shortfall and we didn’t have to pay back that loan if there was a guilty verdict.”
However, the worst was not over. Blythe, an accountant by trade who worked for the council and was seconded to Leeds Grand two years ago, signed the contract to become the theatre’s full time CEO just over a month ago.
“I carried out a financial review of the company and then had to pick up the accounts and put them straight,” he says, sitting in the circle bar of the theatre. “The costs were out of control. In 2013-2014 the company made a loss of about £400,000.”
A lot of the problems stemmed from the fact that Alp, didn’t let anyone else control their own budgets. Alan Dawson is the theatre’s facilities manager - in charge of the smooth running of the building - and it is only since Blythe’s arrival that he has been in control of his own budgets.
Blythe says: “Alan was pretty much using sticking plasters to keep the building together. I realised we were paying over the odds for things like insurance, which was costing £150,000 a year to small things like the drinks we serve at the bars.”
Blythe and Dawson want to show me what they mean. As I am taken around the building it is a dizzying experience - and I’m not just talking about the climb up a steel stepladder to stamnd above the theatre’s ornate ceiling.
A multi-million pound state of the art flying system (the steel cables that lift scenery up into a cavernous roof) is to the left - paint peels off the walls to the right. A heating and cooling system which cost more than a semi-detached in a nice part of Leeds sits inside a dank and dark cellar. All fur coat and no knickers is the old fashioned phrase.
“The ceiling of the theatre is a £10m work of art,” says Dawson. “Everyone who comes here, from hairy arsed technicians to the stars all look up and say how beautiful it is. The theatre might be a jewel in the crown for the city, but that ceiling is yhe jewel in the crown of this theatre.”
It is that ceiling, the seats, the bar, the facade that all need to be maintained and the reason why the theatre costs as much as it does to run.
How much? £14m a year.
“We receive a grant from the council and that makes up one percent of our budget, the rest we have to make ourselves as a business.”
That includes money from drinks, ice creams and... ticket sales. The most recent controversy was over its £3 booking fees. The producer of Gangsta Granny wrote to the Yorkshire Post saying he was going to pull future shows from the theatre over the ‘racket’ of ‘ludicrous booking fees’.
“The problem we have is that of the £14m we take a year, around 65 per cent of that goes straight back to the producers,” says Blythe. “We have staffing costs to cover as well as technical team and the fundamentals of running a business. We have to find a way of making the business model work.
“All theatres operate by making a deal with the producers. We don’t make our own work, like say the West Yorkshire Playhouse, so that means we don’t receive any Arts Council funding. We have to rely on the shows that are available to us. We then have to make deals on those shows to make it worth a producer bringing a show to us rather than going somewhere else. The booking fee is always part of the deal, it’s not something we add on at the end of a ticket price. What it says in the brochure is what the customer pays. It’s purely down to how we divvy up the split between us and the producer of the show.”
Back above the stage Dawson shows me how the stage scenery can be lifted at the touch of a button, thanks to a system that costs £30,000 a year to maintain.
“People don’t just come here to see the shows, they come for the building,” says Dawson.
Picking up the baton, Blythe adds: “And to keep this building running and, who knows, improve it, we need to continue to operate properly and efficiently as a business.”
And, hopefully, as the musical My Fair Lady might put it, with a little bit of luck the theatre will avoid another year like the one just gone.