Bosses at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre have unveiled their 90th birthday present to the landmark venue – a £3.9 million refurbishment of its Grade II listed auditorium.
The theatre has launched a public fundraising campaign to help towards the cost of the project which will see a planned closure in the summer of 2018 to complete the works.
The Mayflower 90 Auditorium Appeal marks the theatre’s 90th anniversary in 2018.
The foundation stone was laid on February 1 1928, and the theatre opened on December 22 1928 with a performance of Winona.
Now, the venue is investing to make major improvements to ensure future generations can continue to experience the “very best live performances in the region”.
So far the theatre has secured £2.54 million towards the cost of the project, but as a charitable trust which receives no direct public subsidy, it needs help to raise the remaining £1.35 million.
Michael Ockwell, Mayflower Theatre chief executive, said, “Our wonderful theatre comes to life when our audience are sat in the auditorium, and now it is in need of a major refurbishment programme to secure its future.
“Plans include repainting the whole of the auditorium, moving the pit further under the stage and installing brand-new seating in the stalls and circle.
“This work is essential not just to preserve the building, but to benefit the more than 500,000 people each year who enjoy visiting our theatre. It will provide higher levels of comfort, better access and more opportunities to experience live performance in Southampton.
“I think we have set ourselves a real challenge to raise the money, but in everything we do, we think big. We could have just reupholstered the seats, but we want the best.
“You have got to stretch yourselves and people have responded amazingly. People could have said ‘You are very successful; you do the big musicals; why are you asking for funding?’ But nobody has asked that. People accept that it is about the legacy, about ensuring the theatre’s future.
“People really do appreciate why we are doing this.”
The refurbishment has been long in the planning, and Michael admits that it is more by luck than judgement that it coincides now with the big anniversary – but it all underlines the affection in which the theatre is held, something which has been strongly in evidence during the Mayflower’s My Story archive project, a chance for people to record their memories of the building. Inevitably for many, the Mayflower provided their very first experience of live theatre.”
In recent years, the Mayflower has also had a big focus on youth engagement. It all comes together now with upgrade.
“It is 30 years now since the last major refurbishment. When you have half a million people through the theatre every year, inevitably there is a lot of wear and total. Last year was 513,000 people; half a million the year before that. That’s 1.6 million people over three years. We have been very good at maintenance, and we have kept it looking good, but it is time now to do something major.”
The seating will be off-set which means you won’t be looking at the back of the head of the person in front of you. Also key will be maintaining the acoustic while bringing the audience closer to the stage for certain shows (dance and stand-up, for instance).
Colour scheme will also be decided: “The first part of the process was a conservation study looking at the history of the theatre, and the colour scheme that we have got at the moment is not historically accurate. We are talking about looking at a potential change in the colour scheme, but it is something that is so subjective.”
Aspects such as light bounce will be taken into consideration; plus it will also be a chance to look at energy saving and implementing green policy.”
The work itself will begin on June 10 next year, the day after War Horse finishes on June 9: “We will probably be literally getting the show out the back door as we start to rip up the seating!”
Michael anticipates a 15-week closure, with programming resuming at the end of September. During the closure, the venue will continue with its education and outreach work.
And no, Michael does not believe the theatre will lose momentum during the closure or lose out to competitors: “A lot of the stuff we have can only come into our space. And we will also have the autumn shows on sale. We also hope there will be a lot of interest in what we are doing. The plan is to have a series of open days before we do our first performance back in there. With the autumn programme announced, we are sure we can keep the momentum going. We will have some great shows, hopefully on sale and marketed that we can announce this autumn.”
Jenny Boland, Mayflower Theatre fundraising manager, added, “The public fundraising begins now and you can help by going onto our website to donate, buying a seat plaque which will go onto one of our brand-new seats or texting MAYF10 for a £10 donation to 70070. We will be announcing further fundraising activities soon.”
Actor Shane Richie, a regular favourite at Mayflower Theatre, added: “Mayflower Theatre is a fantastic venue and I have loved playing here many times over the years. I genuinely ask that the public support the theatre in making the auditorium the very best in the country.”