We chat to Joe and Will about what it takes to run an accessible, independent, and exciting venue in Manchester
There’s no business like show business, and two people that can truly vouch for this are Joe and Will from Hope Mill Theatre. As well as Ethel Merman, of course (all the greats).
Manchester’s cultural ecology was lacking a venue like Hope Mill before we opened.
Walking into Hope Mill on a Tuesday afternoon took me straight back to my dance school show days. There were props everywhere, the stage lights were dimmed, and a pre-performance buzz leaked out of the brick walls. If I could bottle the vibes from backstage at a theatre, I would. Hope Mill is also situated in a little industrial estate on Pollard Street, and I love a hidden gem.
I’d heard about this indie theatre in loads of different ways - Julie Hesmondhalgh had commended their work when I chatted to her about the North, they won Fringe Venue of the Year back in 2018, and anywhere with Dame Maureen Lipman on the agenda for 2022 gets a big “yes” from me.
Intrigued to know more about their journey as an independent arts venue, and eager to find out just how they stick to their mission “to enrich, educate and entertain our community”, I met up with Hope Mill co-owners Joseph Houston and William Whelton to chat about tough beginnings, inclusive theatre and their favourite musicals.
The West End and Byron burgers
Both Joe and Will have a background in performing and went to drama school in London. They’re from Glasgow and Macclesfield originally and met back in 2012 whilst touring in a production. The couple lived in London for another three years “just doing what you do and making ends meet to get by, going to auditions and treading the boards whilst working here and there”, Joe said.
The pair also started working for Byron Burgers, a gig that eventually led to their pursuits up North when the area manager asked them if they'd ever thought of going back to where Will was originally from. As Will was also out of action due to having a couple of operations on his voice, the move seemed ideal, and the pair moved to Byron’s new branch in Piccadilly Gardens.
As fate would have it, Joe and Will worked in Manchester for six weeks before they were offered a UK tour. However, Will noticed, “We were working with waiters and students at Byron that were doing script writing, had their own theatre companies, and knew about places we’d never heard of as I hadn’t lived in the city for ten years. We were very much wrapped up in the London bubble and had only been to the big touring venues outside of the capital”.
The pair started to discover that Manchester had theatre venues above pubs, in community spaces, and in Will’s words, “We fell in love with the city immediately”.
A Gumtree gem
Joe and Will returned to Manchester after the tour to view some potential spaces to open a theatre venue of their own. Will explained, “We found this spot on Gumtree advertised as a storage space, and thought, we could turn this into a theatre.” The space that houses Hope Mill is all classic Mancunian red brick, exposed steel infrastructure, and ridiculously high ceilings.
The pair explained, “We walked back down the canal and called the estate agent to say ‘we’ll take it’, which was crazy because we didn’t have any money. We figured that we’d work out the next steps afterwards”. Solid graft came then as the pair had no assets and could only borrow a small amount from the government as a start-up.
Will baked cakes and opened the venue as a café. The building was, "like being in a fridge,” he remembers. They had to paint, clean, renovate, and they secretly lived in the venue on a mattress above the toilets for the first six months as they didn’t have the money to pay rent. Hope Mill officially opened as a theatre in November 2015.
Musicals and multiple jobs
Working with Mancunian producer Katy Lipson, Hope Mill theatre put on its first musical, Parade, in May 2016. The show sold out, and Will said it was a huge success: "I think because we were breaking the boundaries of what anyone thought would be possible in a small found space. We had an orchestra of 14, and a cast of 15 and it was done on such a shoestring budget. We also tried to keep our ticket pricing accessible as no one had ever charged above a tenner for a fringe show in Manchester.”
When it opened, there were no spots like this outside of London really, and Hope Mill was “not just what Manchester wanted, but needed” said Joe. The pair worked in the café from 8am, on the bar, the box office, behind the scenes and, as Joe said, “we ended up living and breathing Hope Mill. We had such an emotional investment and it was truly built with love.”
Since 2016, the theatre has now put on productions of Annie, Legally Blonde, The Wiz, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Passion to name but a few. Ruthie Henshall starred in Passion too, and she’s a real ledge.
Everyone and everything
Sarah Frankcom, ex-Artistic Director from The Royal Exchange once said, “Hope Mill changed the theatre landscape in Manchester”, and our conversation made this increasingly apparent.
"Manchester’s cultural ecology was lacking a venue like Hope Mill before we opened", said Joe, and “The word accessibility gets thrown around a lot, but as a venue, we wanted to create a space where everyone and anyone feels welcome, both audiences and artists alike. This is a never-ending process because the world is an ever-changing, evolving thing. We’re a queer-led venue, we run a queer arts festival, we have a theatre school, and a choir, and we’re doing all we can.”
The arts in unconventional areas
Joe and Will wanted to turn Hope Mill into a venue that’s sustainable way beyond their own careers, and the theatre transitioned into a charitable organisation back in 2019. The pair are also aware that, “The Miles Platting, Ancoats, Beswick, Newton Heath area is the most deprived ward in Manchester, and there’s a real cultural divide in this specific area that we sit right in the middle of.”
Ancoats and New Islington are all wine bars, high-end dog shops, and incredible pasta places nowadays, but, as Joe explained, “On the other side of our fence you’ve got children going to food banks and families that are struggling.”
Hope Mill has thus ensured that 50% of the places on its theatre school programme are free for local families. The theatre also does school outreach programmes, workshops, free drama classes, and after-school clubs. With a background in performing, as Will highlights, “We are aware that singing lessons, dance lessons, acting classes cost a lot of money, but talent doesn’t choose who it's born into, so it all comes down to accessibility.” More of this please, Manchester.
What’s on now then?
Hope Mill Theatre’s current “What’s On” page is a varied and exciting one, with everything from a brand new rock musical Lizard Boy to the European theatrical premiere of the 2013 Broadway version of Cinderella. In between these productions are the Community Hub Summer Concert, a HER Productions version of Much Ado About Nothing, and a one-woman show with the ever-iconic Maureen Lipman.
Joe and Will also hope the future includes a lot of educational development: “Because of our background and our love for it, a long-term ambition is being able to create a world-class musical theatre training facility here in Manchester. It’s something the city needs and deserves and we need to see this shift away from everything happening in London. We need to continue putting on brand new shows and reviving the old greats. We like to think that we’ll always have something for everyone."
I end my chat with Joe and Will with a chat about favourites. Although asking them to choose their favourite musical is like Sophie’s Choice.
Joe’s favourite is Rent, a production put on by Hope Mill that managed five public performances before lockdown but was streamed to over 6,000 households after that as they managed to film one of the live performances. Rent was brought back in 2021 and sold out for six weeks.
For Will, he vividly remembers seeing a production of Come from Away at The Phoenix Theatre in London. He patents it as one of his favourite pieces of new musical theatre as it “celebrates humanity at its best, and reminds you how amazing humans can be to each other when we need it.”
I walk away from Hope Mill wondering what my favourite production is, and I flit between Les Miserables and The Sound of Music on the tram ride home.
Hope Mill Theatre, 113 Pollard St, Manchester M4 7JA
Read next: Julie Hesmondhalgh: 'We're finally realising that there's a rich pool of talent that exists here'
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