AS MANAGER of Rotherham's Civic Theatre, Jo Longworth oversees the staging of shows big and small, including the popular Christmas panto. Jo (48), talked us through her theatre career, from her early days on stage to dealing with the impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Q: How did your interest in theatre first develop? Were you a fan of the stage as a child?
A: You could say I came from a theatrical family. Both my parents and extended family were involved in amateur dramatics as performers, musical directors, props mistresses — to name but a few roles. My elder sister and brother also joined in, with my sister performing and my brother operating the lighting and follow spots. As a baby, I was taken to sit backstage in my pram while everyone else took part, so it was inevitable that when I grew up I would either perform or work backstage.
I remember taking part as a performer in a number of shows and concert performances when I was young.
Q: Did you take part in school plays and other performances either as a performer or in a backstage role? What if any memories do you have of this?
A: While I enjoyed the singing and dancing, I was always more at home working backstage. I loved the atmosphere backstage and my cousin started taking me to help out with the painting of scenery for shows. In those days, I was generally involved in pantomimes where we made all our own sets and props, from backcloths for Aladdin’s cave to a carriage for Cinderella.
In my first year or two at Canon Slade secondary school in Bolton, I remember playing the tenor recorder as part of an ensemble for a Shakespeare piece. I think it was Twelfth Night. I really didn’t enjoy it, and I had to wear some kind of Elizabethan tabard — not my finest moment.
Later, I got involved with a production of Bugsy Malone and helped one of the older boys make splurge guns and looked after them during the show. That was a much more enjoyable experience.
I trained to be a PE teacher but as part of my A levels, I had to choose a work placement and I had previously done work experience in a sports setting so thought it would be fun to go to a professional theatre to see how it worked.
I spent a week at the Palace Theatre in Manchester and worked in all departments, where I suddenly realised that the people who made all this work were just ordinary people like me, and realised that I too could choose the theatre as a career.
Q: How did you first come to work in a theatre? Did it relate to your university studies or training?
A: I completed a two-year stage management diploma course and was lucky enough to have a work placement with a large UK company on their production of Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi playing Alan Turing, the wartime codebreaker.
I worked through rehearsals as a production runner, which meant I did a bit of everything, generally with the stage management team, and was asked to travel to Sheffield with the company to see it open the tour. This was my first real experience of working on a full professional show.
Q: You have worked with several theatres in the past — what have been your most enjoyable and challenging moments?
A: I have had numerous jobs in theatres all over the country and have been stage crew, dresser and wardrobe maintenance as well as manager.
Each role has brought its own enjoyable moments and its own challenges — the common thread is the reward you feel when you see and hear an audience really appreciate what they have just experienced and knowing that you have somehow contributed to that happening.
Q: What attracted you to the role at Rotherham Theatres? Did you have any knowledge of the Civic or the town itself beforehand? What were your first impressions — and have they changed?
A: I wanted to expand my experience in a new setting. Before I applied, I spoke to the then-theatre manager to get a feel for the theatre and the people. One of the lasting early impressions, and one that continues to prove itself, is the loyalty and friendliness of the staff, participants and customers.
The Civic is a centre for local amateur talent from all over the borough and sees local people take part in up to 120 performances each year. We have a loyal team of volunteers who support the theatre as stewards for all performances. Some of the staff have seen the theatre through its ups and downs and remember the days of the Arts Centre. There are people and companies that have had an association with the theatre since it first opened in 1960. That is quite an achievement.
Q: Can you summarise for us what your role involves. Talk us through the features of a typical day or week.
A: There isn’t a typical day or even week! It is useful to be able to turn your hand to most things when required. There are all the normal things like budgets, staffing planning, drawing up rotas, timesheets, corporate input, etc but I can also spend my time talking to promoters about their latest production and trying to create a suitable mixed programme, talking with amateur groups about the theatre and their productions or operating the box office system to get shows on sale.
There is always the possibility that I might be called on to cover for staff in box office, stewarding, technical crew or just fixing a toilet seat. You never know what the day might bring.
Q: What are the most enjoyable parts of managing a theatre? How do you see your role in terms of bringing a range of acts to the town?
A: The most enjoyable things are probably a combination of the things already mentioned: staff, people, reaction, varied job.
On the whole, we all have a common interest and common goal which is to provide a high-quality experience to the local community.
Getting the balance between professional and amateur shows is always a challenge. Our current focus is very much influenced by commercial need to keep the theatre financially sustainable, and we see up to 70,000 ticket sales each year for a range of shows.
There is a strong audience following for the annual pantomime, which is often the first experience children have of going to the theatre.
We try to plan carefully to offer a programme that compliments the audience, although I believe there are still gaps to be filled.
Q: Do you like to take the time to watch the shows being staged at the Civic, and does it disappoint you when amateur theatre companies producing often high-quality work fail to fill the theatre?
A: I try to make time in my working week to see as much of a production as I can. That is especially true for the amateur shows where I will try to watch parts of a performance and see the company during the week, and also for any new shows that are booked in.
It is always a shame to see performances with low audience numbers, especially when you know the time and effort it has taken to get a production on the stage, but it is also important to have an understanding of what is being presented so that we can advocate for future sales.
Q: What does the future hold for the Civic, theatre and the arts in Rotherham, in your view? Is it a challenge ensuring the theatre is properly supported and maintained?
A: When we closed in March due to Covid-19, over 60 per cent of the tickets already purchased were kept for rescheduled performances or as credit on customer accounts. In a recent survey of Rotherham theatre goers over 90 per cent of responders attend the Civic Theatre more than twice a year. 44.6 per cent attend more than four times a year.
This shows that we have a very loyal, loving and committed community who are keen to see the Civic Theatre reopen when it is safe to do so.
We are lucky enough to host shows that would generally play in much bigger theatres with larger capacities and more modern technical facilities than the Civic.
We share the market for shows with Cast in Doncaster, Sheffield City Hall, Pomegranate in Chesterfield — to name just a few local theatres.
The Civic currently operates a very commercially-focused programme which makes enough money to cover most of its costs and, whilst we have a loyal customer base, ideally the theatre needs some investment to allow the programme to become more diverse and accessible to groups that are currently underrepresented, which would create greater engagement with the less traditional theatre goers.
In the mean time, we are trying to keep engagement with our audiences via social media where we have a series of informative and fun things taking place.
Q: What's your message to the people of Rotherham, whether they come to the theatre or not?
A: If you are a regular patron, thank you for your continued support. And if you’ve never been before, come along and explore the possibilities to volunteer, participate or simply watch.