Blog: Simon Naylor

The artistic director of the independent, wheelchair-friendly arts venue in Manchester explains its determination to grow despite being knocked back for Arts Council funding

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In 2016, 53two was born in two stunning arches behind Deansgate Locks in Manchester. It was a little damp to say the least but we made it home: a 150 seater theatre and smaller studio.

Three years later the recipients of the best small theatre award from the Northern Soul Manchester Theatre Awards and several nominations, we were to move to pastures new. In that short time we had grown a community of wonderful people. Our damp archway seemingly had a charm that befitted our ethos – theatre is for everyone and access, on every level, became a keystone of our mission statement. With a level floor throughout it soon became apparent that 53two was almost perfect for wheelchair users and with that, our relationship with Bafta-winning arts group TripleC and the need for universal access was born.

In 2019 our tiny team relocated to an empty unit on South King St. It wasn’t perfect, but we were thankful to have somewhere to go to continue to offer accessible space whilst considering our next step. Shaun Hinds of Manchester Central had indicated that we could potentially take over two unused arches on Watson St that were once used to carry trains into the behemoth station. However, we wanted to properly take root and really make an impact as a theatre.

The arches, one in particular, had been empty for some 22 years – damp, full of scrap, dark tunnels. This was to be no easy job. That said, we have never shied away from a challenge and so we budgeted and set about raising the capital. Our community were incredible and a Crowdfunder set us well under way. Backstage Trust were beyond supportive and, perhaps miraculously, a “theatre angel” swooped in to support us. We raised enough to complete phase one of the regeneration.

Last May (yes, in pandemic chaos!) we opened our beautiful arts hub beneath incredible Victorian brickwork. We had a perfect bar-cafe, retaining some of the 150-year-old features, and a pop-up 80 seater theatre.

We filled the arches with the same electric buzz that we had come to know in the old place. The difference? Well, apart from it being dry and warm, this time we’d been able to start from scratch and ensure that the venue was truly accessible for all. The venue is one level, there’s a lowered bar for wheelchair users, the staff are trained in BSL, our tills have tactile touch pads for the visually impaired, there’s an accessible toilet – even our beer is gluten free! None of it’s an add-on – it’s stitched into the fabric of the venue.

Even with a larger theatre, our tickets would remain affordable, we’d continue to launch charitable activities and support underserved creatives

Now we start phase two, extending into a 150 seater and adding an essential Changing Places toilet – a facility that our more severely disabled guests need to fully enjoy theatre and something Manchester is lacking. The development of the venue would not only ensure that the city had a home for new writing but it would mean that an independent theatre would become the first and only fully accessible venue in Greater Manchester.

That’s not an achievement – it’s something that should happen. Even with a larger theatre, our tickets would remain affordable, we’d continue to launch charitable activities and support underserved creatives, we’d continue our outreach with young people across Greater Manchester – all of this but with the facilities to achieve more.

Simon Naylor: “Now we start phase two, extending into a 150 seater and adding an essential Changing Places toilet.”

Sadly, the Arts Council recently rejected a bid for the money to complete this. We’re not sure why. So we find ourselves again in search of what many would deem impossible but we’re not daunted by the challenge. We have a responsibility to deliver and we will. We’re now looking to companies across Greater Manchester for sponsorship, perhaps to have the auditorium named after them. There’s money out there and there are great people who we believe will see the value of 53two.

On 27 May, we’re inviting councillors, cultural leaders and some CEOs we believe will have the power to support us – we’re also celebrating our first year. Patron Tony Walsh will be reciting one of his poems, Monique Jarrett, champion wheelchair dancer, will be performing, there’s live music, prize draws and we’ll be announcing our new theatre season.

Expect to hear about electric new writing as we house two world premieres, a two week run of six short plays from local writers, a family show to take us into Christmas, two pieces from our next generation artists Switch Manchester, a beer festival, an LGBTQI+ festival and our usual smattering of comedy, live music, scratch nights and more.

We intend to make noise – enough to be heard by the right people – and it’s our hope that we can use the cacophony to finally put accessibility, affordable theatre and platforms for underserved creatives front and centre.

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