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Words: Nicola Boyce
Photography: Lester McKone
Featured in the March 2015 issue

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An exclusive interview with Ian Dickens.

Can you remember what you were doing in March 2010? Five years may not seem that long ago but thinking back…

Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister and Labour were in power. Facebook was in its infancy. Prince William was a single man. Smartphones were a futuristic dream. Lincoln still had a daily newspaper. Britain was in the grip of a double-dip recession. Lincoln Theatre Royal had just lost its council grant and seemed consigned to empty dereliction, decay or conversion to a ‘Theme’ pub at best.
Enter Ian Dickens, stage right.

Can you remember what you were doing on 27th March 2010? For Ian Dickens it was the All-Star Gala Opening of Lincoln Theatre Royal; the theatre that he had saved. It was also the start of a journey, an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of white-knuckle daring and determination often in the face of steely adversity.

Ian laughs as he remembers vividly the night of the Gala. “There were fifteen minutes to go before our guests started coming into the theatre and the carpets were still being laid. I was hoovering madly. Ian Marston, my associate and business partner was hammering something into place. There was still some wet paint about and the staff were desperately trying to hang pictures of the old bill posters on the stairs. We had all been in the theatre until 4am the night before. It was a bit crazy!”

The Gala was a resounding success and launched the new season for 2010. But there wasn’t time for Ian and his team to rest on their laurels. 

He said: “The first thing that I realised I had to do was to reinvent the theatre and make it a place of excitement for the people of Lincoln. To give them back their theatre, if you like. During my career as a producer, I had visited literally hundreds of theatres throughout the UK but I had never been in sole charge of running one before.”

Ian Dickens Productions was the largest commercial theatre company in the UK and at any one time had close to 300 weeks of productions at theatres up and down the country. 

“I wanted to totally refresh its image and present some clean modern lines whilst still retaining the beauty and charm of its Victorian features,” said Ian.

Lincoln Theatre Royal is a Grade II star listed building. English Heritage had to approve much of the alterations and this often presented its own conundrums.

Ian recalled: “There was one charming woman from English Heritage who insisted that she had to come to see me to represent the inanimate objects within the building. ‘I am this door,’ she told me firmly one chilly January morning, ‘You cannot change me.’”

Objections from inanimate objects aside, many major changes were allowed and implemented. These included new glass doors and an entirely new main entrance to the Theatre on Clasketgate. The pokey old bar which had been squeezed into one corner of the front of house area was totally overhauled. The new look bar is a clean modern structure running the length of a wall in front of the large windows. The bar features modern Pilsner lager pumps, bottles of French wine, real coffee and spirits measured out into stainless steel shot holders.

Front of house has been transformed with a fresh and tasteful colour design of terracotta and blue, and dotted around the upstairs bar are comfortable wicker sofas with cushions. But these are not the only improvements that Ian has implemented. Since 2010, there has been a complete overhaul of the computer system, lighting equipment, sound system, the stage itself and even the ropes that fly the scenery in have been re-hemped. A new Box Office has been created with state-of-the-art technology, new offices for administration and marketing and, surprise surprise, new dressing rooms!

“There is rarely an upgrade to the backstage areas where the actors and performers spend all their time,” explained Ian. “I was determined to be different.”

New showers were installed and the dressing rooms were refurbished and repainted. In addition to this, the rest of the theatre was re-plastered and re-carpeted.

Today Lincoln Theatre Royal is a lively, thriving part of modern Lincoln life. The day that I interviewed Ian Dickens, he had just finished reconciling the Pantomime figures for 2014/5 and was delighted to announce that he had once again broken all box office records with Jack and The Beanstalk.

Ian told me: “Next year it’s going to be Sleeping Beauty, and I am surprised and delighted to see that plenty of people are booking for this already!”

The new season which runs from January to May 2015 is an exciting and eclectic mix of opera, comedy, big bands, kids shows, jazz and some drama. There is even a circus coming for Easter!

Ian said: “We have had to listen to the people of Lincoln and give them what they want. I would love to have countless plays here – thrillers, comedies even Shakespeare, which is where I started. But our drama was playing to less than thirty per cent capacity. We cannot afford to be self-indulgent. We have to keep this magnificent old theatre going. If people do not come and see the shows, we cannot put them on.”

Lincoln Theatre Royal does not have any arts funding or subsidy of any kind. Unlike many arts organisations, it is privately owned and run by Ian Dickens. He has put a lot of his own money and hard work into the building over the last five years.

“It has been a steep learning curve, to be honest with you. I imagined at the beginning that it would be a great venue in which our production company could rehearse and an excellent date from which tours could begin. I imagined that actually running the place and programming the seasons would take me maybe a few afternoons a week! I was so wrong. This is a full-time job and then some!” 

There have been a few disappointments for Ian and his team along the way. A Theatre-In-Education company was started in March 2014. Its aim was to provide a number of shows with content pertinent to the National Curriculum and aimed at various different age groups covered by the Key Stage Teaching Programme. The first specially commissioned show, Trenches, Guns, Drums and Yells was about the First World War and had three different scripts according to which age group was booked in to see the show.

Ian explained: “It was a great piece with plenty of songs, information, drama and loads of interaction for the kids. We had them all up on the stage at one point, each child representing a country that was involved in the Great War. Then we did a scene from Oh! What A Lovely War! I think they enjoyed it.

“We had great feedback from the groups that came to see it. The sad thing was out of 666 Lincolnshire schools that we emailed and then phoned, only six replied and purchased tickets. If it had been a resounding success, we would have gone on to produce more but it really was not taking off. I do not really understand why.”

There have been a number of knocks and setbacks. Ian feels that there are some people in Lincoln who were not necessarily in favour of him taking over the theatre. “We have had our share of dissenters. We have had to fight our corner a little bit. We have no help with funding. I estimate that we are one of the few privately funded regional theatres in the UK,” he said.

“But we have been fantastically lucky to have the most wonderful Theatre Club who have contributed many thousands of pounds to help with repairs and additional features. They are a great group of people who love theatre and Lincoln Theatre Royal in particular. They have really helped us a great deal.”

And so what of the future? Where next for Ian Dickens and his right hand man, Ian Marston?

“This year we have decided to close over the summer. Lincoln Theatre Royal will become more of a seasonal venue. We will close mid-May and reopen in mid-September. We are licensed for weddings and can do the odd hire but we will end our own season on Sunday 17th May with The New Jersey Boys. This will make us more cost-efficient and we hope that when we begin the new season in September, people will be glad to see us and come back and book!”

Ian intends to redecorate areas of the theatre during this time and they are hopeful that, by the summer, they will have had some news of their National Heritage Lottery Grant application for the final stage of the refurbishment of the auditorium and of the beautiful old Proscenium Arch which frames the stage.

Ian wants to continue his work in keeping the theatre alive in Lincoln. He also wants it to remain one of Lincoln’s major attractions and continue to be recognised as an important centre for mainstream entertainment in Lincolnshire and beyond. He operates in a market where two other city venues are subsidised but Ian talks directly and with a determination of his aims for 2015 and the next five years.

He takes a deep breath: “We will obviously continue to produce the highest quality pantomime for everyone every year. Lots of people are saying it’s part of their family Christmas now and we are honoured to be part of that. We pride ourselves on our traditional family pantomime with live orchestra, professional dancers, a fresh new script, costumes and scenery every year.

“I want to continue to develop our relationship with our Amateur Drama Organisation, CAODS. They have Sister Act booked in for October 2015. So far, we have had 337 different shows at Lincoln Theatre Royal. I will continue to strive to programme the very best of opera, ballet, comedy, bands, live music and hopefully some drama and some children’s shows. My own kids love this theatre and I want it to be a place where children look forward to seeing and being in shows.

“I hope that Lincoln Theatre Royal is not only a place where people enjoy a great night out but also where they feel part of the history of a great theatrical tradition. I want every season to have something for everyone.”

What a great ambition to have and what an amazing five years it has been. Keep going, Ian and roll on the next five years. Oh and by the way, thank you for your work in saving Lincoln’s theatre!

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