A Cast Of Thousands

Sophie Haydock finds creativity and community spirit thriving despite the economic climate as a new theatre in Doncaster opens its doors

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This September, an ambitious multi-million pound new theatre will open in Doncaster. The hope is that it will breathe fresh energy into a town that was rated as one of the least engaged with arts in the UK.

Cast, the £22 million performance venue, will open on 6 September alongside a weekend of art, pop-up performances, flash mobs and open-house events, offering the public a chance to engage with the new space. The season’s schedule then includes comedy, dance and theatre, with appearances from Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates, comedian Russell Kane and poet Simon Armitage, as well as pantomime-season performances of Cinderella.

“There’s something for everyone,” says the venue’s artistic director Kully Thiarai. “We hope that the energy of the place will encourage people to try something new.”

The opening coincides with the official launch of Right Up Our Street – a £2.5 million Arts Council-funded project to engage more people in the arts in Doncaster. “It’s been a tough few years for people in the arts,” says Thiarai. “And it’s been a tough few years for Doncaster – it has been bashed and battered and bypassed.”

Doncaster came 274th out of 282 local authorities when the Arts Council ranked them for engagement with the arts. But Thiarai rejects that assessment. “We do not believe there is a lack of creative potential or ambition in the town’s people, merely an untapped and invisible voice needing an opportunity to be unleashed. The Doncaster we know is full of artists, musicians, writers and performers – full of people who think creatively and value imagination.”

Thiarai adds that a thriving cultural life can produce a genuine sense of “wellbeing” in a town, and hopes Cast can be part of a brighter future for Doncaster.

“We can’t solve unemployment, poverty or difficult lives but it is important to offer hope and entertainment and a world beyond the everyday, to let imaginations fly,” she says.

However, she admits that it is a “hard time” to launch a new theatre. “To the council’s credit, they felt a cultural venue was an important part of their strategy,” Thiarai says, referring to the council’s £300 million investment in a civic and cultural quarter for Doncaster, which is set to revitalise the Waterdale area of the town centre.

And when it came to choosing a name, it wasn’t hard to find inspiration for the new building, which includes a 620-seat theatre space, dance and drama studios, rooms for learning, rehearsing and meetings, a café bar and views into Sir Nigel Gresley Square.

“Cast is at the heart of Doncaster. We wanted a name that was about the people and the place. You can’t do a play without a cast, and it also encompasses a sense of production and heritage.”

The inaugural play certainly draws on Doncaster’s heritage: Glee Club is written by local playwright Richard Cameron, and will be the first time it has been professionally produced in the town.

Set in the summer of 1962, the play draws on themes of comradeship, community and loyalty, following the lives of a group of Yorkshire Main miners in the village of Edlington, who form a glee club to sing in pubs and clubs – until their ways of life change forever. The play received rave reviews when it was performed in the West End in 2002.

The director, Esther Richardson, says: “Glee Club is fantastic, wonderfully written, with great songs. It is full of adorable characters, flawed but loveable rogues. It will be hard for people not to enjoy it.”

Richardson says there has been a real emphasis on getting the details right. “We’ve had to rise to the challenge of it being set in, about, and for Doncaster. We had the help of a miner’s daughter, who introduced us to men who used to work in the pit. The play has to connect with the audience.”

Asked whether theatre is still relevant to people’s lives, Richardson replies with a resounding yes. “Theatre is a collective act, something you do with other people. We tell our stories, leave our mark, hear our voices – it can be extraordinarily transformative, for individuals and the community.”

A Cast Of Thousands, 6 Sept, Cast, Doncaster 

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