Big theatres, small theatres, theatres run by charities, all utterly lovable
Manchester is jam-packed with incredible arts programmes and initiatives, as well as a whole host of places to see stuff on stage every night of the week. The big dogs like The Palace, The Opera House and The Royal Exchange have everything from Tchaikovsky to Tennessee Williams on the agenda for the coming months, but we think the indies deserve some time in the spotlight too.
When we spoke with Julie Hesmondhalgh earlier in the spring, she commended Mancunians for "finally realising that there’s a rich pool of talent that exists here", and these spots in and around Greater Manc allow this pool to flourish.
Joe and Will from Hope Mill Theatre also explained that smaller venues are "truly built with love" and require a lot of blood, sweat and jazz hands. So it's time to cop some tickets and support your local independent theatre - that's if you don't already.
Small venues don't always mean small names either, with stars like Maureen Lipman, Jenny Eclair and Rob Newman hot-stepping around the red velvet curtains and fresnel lights of Manchester's hidden theatrical gems in the near future.
Read on for 13 indie theatres in Manchester that you might not know about.
Like all the cool kids in Manchester, 53two is situated under a cosy little brick archway with an unassuming exterior and an events programme full of five-star theatre. Beginning life in the old Bauer Millet Garage, the team from Manchester Actors' Platform turned the space into a flexible and accessible theatre before moving to another archway just 50 yards away from the original venue.
53two is now a registered charity with ramps, disabled loos, BSL interpretation and a youth company called SWITCH MCR. "Unwaged tickets" are also available at 53two for those on income support/low income, and the space has nailed that intimate, immersive vibe that makes you feel right at the heart of the action. It's impossible to summarise 53two's "What's On" page in a few words, but there's currently a one-act play about immigration, six short works from Mancunian actors and directors, and a wartime musical in the works, so you get the gist.
53two, Arch 19 Watson St, Manchester M3 4LP
No, it's not just a cinema, it hosts burlesque spectaculars, comedy, and improv open mic nights as well. Naturally. Chapeltown Picture House is connected to Cheetham Hill hotspot GRUB, and you can take ice cream, freshly popped popcorn, or a dessert from one of the street food traders into the venue with you. The theatre holds just over 100 people at max capacity, you can hire out the space for your own event, and it's completely accessible with everything from subtitles to step-free access. Chapeltown also has a proper set of red velvet curtains, so you feel all swanky whilst you sit and wait for your spoken word.
Chapeltown Picture House, 50 Red Bank, Manchester, England, M4 4HF, United Kingdom
Contact aims to "place young people at the decision-making heart of everything", and with the iconic and inspiring Keisha Thompson currently at the wheel as CEO, its an exciting place to be both on and off stage. Within this castle-like beast at the end of Oxford Road, young people aged 13-30 genuinely help to run the joint as they work alongside senior staff to shape the artistic programme, make staff appointments, and act as fully-fledged board members. With the proof being in the programme, Contact's agenda is "an outstanding, diverse and accessible" feat with everything from drag shows with Ginny Lemon to live performances from Jackie Kay, Malika Booker and Keisha Thompson herself. A biggie with over 300 seats, and a brand new food vendor in the name of House of Habesha, Contact is one to always watch. Bonus points for looking like a Transformer too.
Contact, Oxford Rd, Manchester M15 6JA
We already know all of the best spots to eat and drink in Chorlton, but it's not all momos and chapatis in M16 as The Edge Theatre & Arts Venue brings award-winning productions to one of Manchester's trendiest 'burbs. Run by the registered charity Waters Edge, The Edge is a 70-seat theatre used by amateur, professional and community companies alike, with a massive focus on new talent and children's theatre.
Based in the grounds of Chorlton Methodist Church, The Edge also has a cracking cafe, rehearsal space, and isn't picky with its crowd having celebrated its 10th year as Manchester's Theatre for Participation in 2021. Big name actor and patron, Sir Mark Rylance, commends The Edge for working with "people who are lonely, people who are poor, people with mental illness, young people…lots of different people in the community who don’t have access to stories and the arts", and we reckon its upcoming Cardboard Carnival will be a small stroke of genius.
The Edge Theatre & Arts Venue, Manchester Rd, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 9JG
We'll let you off if you haven't already heard of this one, as it isn't actually open yet. However, if you live for Manchester International Festival in all of its eclectic and entertaining glory, this giant metal structure in the St. John's neighbourhood is one to pin on your internal venue map. Factory International will soon be home to everything from dance and theatre to opera, visual arts and innovative contemporary work, with Danny Boyle, Es Devlin and Yayoi Kusama already announced for the opening programme. Variety is the spice of MIF and all that jazz.
Another exciting titbit r.e. Factory International is that it will be the premiere destination for loads of new productions before they travel the globe. Manchester is the new Cannes, if you will. MIF's new permanent site is massive, "ultra-flexible", and if you fancy having a look around whilst you wait for the whole thing to open, the 360 virtual tour is pretty close to the real deal, minus the Manchester rain and scaffolding.
Factory International, Water St, Manchester M3 4JH
HOME opened back in 2015 and has had a constant stream of UK and international productions flowing through the doors ever since. Like 53two and The Edge, HOME focuses on exploring brand new commissions and talent development whilst "pushing the boundaries of form and technology" in an uber modern glass HQ. Fancy.
The theatre at HOME is classed as both small and mid-scale with around 250 productions a year on average gracing the stage on Tony Wilson Place. If you're after something with variety and prestige, the HOME programme should be your idea of heaven, and over the past few years, this cultural hub has focused on making its offerings more diverse and accessible, whilst catering to a broader audience that is "more representative of our city". After a quick glance at HOME's "What's On" section, Blak Whyte Gray, CRIPtic Cabaret x NOT DYING and Too Much World at Once have all caught our eye, so you'll find us in the bar here for the foreseeable.
HOME, 2 Tony Wilson Place, Manchester M15 4FN
Where there's a mill there's a way, and Joe and Will from Hope Mill Theatre told us all about their journey to success back in July this year. From stagey beginnings to a short career at Byron burgers, the owners of Hope Mill had a lot of hopes for their first joint theatre venture, and now Hope Mill is hosting the UK premiere of Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella starting on Tuesday 1 November.
Hope Mill Theatre has a mission statement to "enrich, educate and entertain our community" and the team have worked tirelessly to "create a safe and inclusive home for both audiences and artists to fulfil their full potential". With a theatre space known as The Factory of Creativity, Hope Mill has capacity for 120 people, and the adaptable space can take on loads of different shapes, seating configurations and lighting options. A true hidden gem in New Islington with an eclectic programme to boot.
Hope Mill Theatre, 113 Pollard St, Manchester M4 7JA
You might already know about The Kings Arms because its got a cracking beer garden and a pub cat called Charlie (Chaz for short). Well, it's also got three refurbished performance spaces upstairs that are used for theatre, comedy, gigs, film screenings and poetry nights. The Kings Arms plays a key role in the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival too with a load of eclectic productions on throughout July every year. For the rest of the year, this pub-come-performance-space has got Shakespearian tragedies, Christmas musicals and a play called Woven that's told through a series of monologues. They recently won Best Pub or Beer Bar at the Manchester Food & Drink Awards too.
The King's Arms, 11 Bloom Street, Salford M3 6AN
The Octagon in Bolton is over 50 years old now, and the majority of the theatre on show there is homegrown and made in B-town. The theatre has its own workshop in the back where sets are constructed, sound engineering is set, and all costumes are cut, fitted and sewn for the full indie theatre experience. There's also a youth theatre group, a Young Octagon performance company and a Bridges programme for people with additional needs and learning disabilities. Proper self-sufficient, super inclusive theatre. Quite a biggie for an indie theatre, The Octagon houses up to 500 people, and in the coming months there's pantos, play readings and a version of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter.
The Octagon Theatre, Howell Croft S, Bolton BL1 1SB
Oldham Coliseum got a big fat shoutout from Julie Hes when I asked her about the Mancunian venues that get her excited, and its all-women version of A Midsummer Night's Dream was a particularly memorable show for the actor too. Another biggie in terms of capacity, the Coliseum seats 520-ish people and has a pathways programme for young theatre makers, primary and secondary education programmes, and script submission windows for budding local talent. This indie spot ticks all of the "classic theatre" boxes with red velvet seats, a backlit sign above the door, and a proper proscenium arch stage. Jenny Eclair's hilarious show Sixty! Ffs has also extended its run at the Coliseum due to popular demand - so jump on the pink Met line to Oldham Mumps.
Oldham Coliseum, Fairbottom St, Oldham OL1 3SW
Believe it or not, Salford only has one independent, self-funded theatre, and this is it. Originally built for The Salford Players, a group who helped aspiring actors and the Salford community back in the day, the theatre now aims to make theatre accessible since owners Roni Ellis and Scott Berry took over in 2007. Producing in-house professional theatre with the Salford Theatre Company, the venue is also available to hire and put on your own productions. Some famous faces from The Salford Players days include Sir Ben Kingsley and Robert Powell. The theatre is open on a regular basis with the programme including everything from an annual pantomime to an independent play written by the winner of this year's Shelagh Delaney award.
Salford Arts Theatre, Kemsing Walk, Off Tunbridge Sq, Liverpool St., Salford M5 4BS
According to the 2022 Manchester Food and Drink awards, and the copious amounts of new ventures that've popped up in the past few years, it's clear that everything's coming up Stockport. With an indie theatre to match its buzzing food and booze scene, The Plaza is an "art deco gem which has served her community for 90 glorious years". Previously a super cinema and variety theatre, The Plaza stills hosts a massive range of stage productions with everything from musical theatre to comedians and an annual panto. Classic films are also shown in their correct ratio and format at The Plaza and some big names on the current agenda include Jimmy Carr, Ray Quinn and a tribute to Tina Turner. If you love a flick through photos from times gone by, you can also explore the building's full restoration journey in photos.
Stockport Plaza, Mersey Square, Stockport SK1 1SP
Waterside Arts took over the old Sale Civic Theatre (and part of Trafford Town Hall) back in 2004, and now it's a thriving and eclectic space with a theatre, studios, workspaces and art galleries all under one roof. Described as "an important regional hub for both performance and visual art", the space is funded by Trafford Council and the Arts Council and lives up to its name by overlooking the Bridgewater Canal. If you fancy some crusts before your cultural offerings, Waterside is right next to Mano a Bocca, and if you're a fan of parquet flooring and art deco interiors, The Chambers studio is the spot for you. The theatre offerings range from magic to The Man Who Wanted To Be A Pengiun.
Waterside Arts, 1 Waterside Plaza, Sale, Trafford, M33 7ZF
Z-arts is mainly aimed at the kiddos and young people of Greater Manchester, with its mission being "to inspire and enable generations of young people to use creativity to maximise their potential". Although it has its own 230 seat theatre as well as a gallery, recording studio, dance studio and music space, Z-Arts also engages with loads of people via outreach programmes in schools, colleges and local communities. Weekly classes in all the art forms run for children aged 0-13 years and the theatre is part of the Big Imaginations network, who commit to bringing touring children's theatre to the North West and Yorkshire. Some upcoming youth productions from this Hulme haven include 9 to 5 The Musical and Dick Whittington.
Z-arts, 335 Stretford Road, Hulme M15 5ZA
Header Image: Stockport Plaza
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