The Lantern Theatre©, Chief Executive Matt Risby and Artistic Director Martin Derbyshire

The oldest theatre in Sheffield turns professional

Sheffield’s oldest theatre, the Lantern Theatre in Nether Edge, has just entered their first season as a full time professional venue. As well as receiving theatre companies on tour, the Lantern Theatre now produces their very own plays.

In February this year, this small, independent theatre produced their first play called Order, a dark, brooding drama. Matt Risby, chief executive of the Lantern Theatre said;

“Our first professional show was a massive deal as producing is something we really want to do.”

The Lantern Theatre recently became a trading arm of the The Dilys Guite Players Ltd (DGP), one of the best amateur theatre groups in Sheffield, who also own the Grade II-listed theatre, built in 1893.

The Lantern Theatre in the 1980’s, originally known as The Chalet Theatre, it is one of few privately-built theatres in the UK.

Two years ago Martin Derbyshire and Matt Risby joined the amateur group and started directing shows. “The membership began to grow really big and we started programming a lot of professional theatre and renting the venue out for gigs,” said Mr Risby.

The new management was so successful that the theatre began making too much money to retain charitable status. “It became too much of a job to run part time, so in September 2011 the board and GDP decided we should go into full time management.

“Martin and I began running the theatre as a professional venue and so Sheffield’s oldest theatre has become Sheffield’s newest professional venue.”

Truly independent

The Lantern Theatre stage, Photograph by Justin Keeton©

Any profit that the Lantern Theatre makes goes back into maintaining and developing the theatre. Mr Risby said;

“It’s as independent as they come, we receive no government or local funding and we are kept open entirely on ticket sales and rental fees.”

The Lantern Theatre now offers a unique range of events. Including performance art, traditional theatre, stand up comedy, singer songwriters, film screenings and alternative theatre.

“We’re really looking to turn this venue into an arts centre for everyone to use, because Sheffield doesn’t have one this size. A lot of places are main house like the Crucible, so loads of companies who tour just bypass Sheffield. But now we’re offering the opportunity to play here, we’re getting some really good people, which is very exciting.”

Modernising with results

Before Matt Risby and artistic director Martin Derbyshire joined the DGP amateur group, they were struggling to bring in new members. However, the new management team has modernised the way the theatre works. “For fifty odd years the DGP asked their members to staff the box office, the front house and the bar. I’ve done it as a DGP member, when you’re asked to do it you have a sense of obligation. You don’t really want to be there and you have to wear a stupid t-shirt. As a result it was the same four or five people who did it all the time.

The Lantern Theatre© in the 1980’s, the Grade II-listed building was built in 1893.

“When we came in we put a call out on twitter, which said we need volunteers to help staff our season, you get to see a show for free and you get a free drink. We had a raft of volunteers. We still have a few DGP members who run the bar or front of house because they like doing it. But everyone else we’ve got in wants to be involved because they like theatre,” said Mr Risby.

The Lantern Theatre has also signed up with the Sheffield volunteering scheme and they have four interns from the Sheffield Universities as part of a council bursary scheme. “It’s been a real help to us, there is always someone to answer the phone, which frees Martin and I to focus on the programming.”

Branching out

As well as being a theatre venue, the Lantern Theatre, with an 84-seat capacity, also rents out their intimate stage space for stand up, music gigs, film screenings and private parties.

“Live music is a massive thing for us, we never struggle to sell out, every gig we’ve had on this season has sold 100%. People come here because this is a really unique space in which to see a live performance. The connection with the audience is so immediate and it is so quaint, that it is just a beautiful place to see live music.”

Their comedy club, Tickle Rib Comedy club, launched in April and has seen big names like Junior Simpson and Sully O’Sullivan. Comedians like Lucy Porter and Mark Little will be performing their Edinburgh previews in July.

The Lantern Theatre seats, Photograph by Justin Keeton©

The Lantern Theatre seats, Photograph by Justin Keeton©

Small is good

Being small and independent gives the Lantern Theatre a greater degree of freedom than bigger venues like the Sheffield Crucible and Lyceum. “They have more money than us, but we don’t have as many constraints, we’re a lot more free to programme what we like. For example, Seven Day Drunk is a performance piece that wouldn’t be on at the Crucible as even the Studio is too big for it. The show would just get lost, as much as we know they’d like to have it,” said Mr Risby.

However, the theatres are not in competition and Daniel Evans, the artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, said he loved this small, independent venue.

“He [Daniel Evans] said we fit in perfectly with the eco-system of theatre in Sheffield, we are not in competition because we are too small and we can benefit each other. That was a really nice thing to hear him say.”

Being independent also gives the Lantern Theatre the freedom to choose who they support. They have a Café Bar, which they claim is very reasonably priced and serves Lantern pale ale and Lantern stout produced by the Rotherham Wentworth brewery. Their tea and coffee is fair-trade and comes from the local company, Caféology, and their ice cream is from the Sheffield ice-cream company, Our Cow Molly.

Mr Risby is determined that they will remain independent even in today’s funding climate.

“Public funding is drying up, so private money is something that is going to have to be pursued, but we need to find a way to do that without compromising the integrity of the place.”