‘The buzz of having an audience back is really special,’ said Royal & Derngate CEO ahead of reopening
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The Derngate auditorium reopened on Tuesday evening (October 24), more than a month after closing due to the discovery of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in its foyers.
Performances in the Royal auditorium resumed last Monday (October 16) and last night the Derngate auditorium reopened with Northampton Musical Theatre Company’s production of Kinky Boots.
This newspaper was given a tour of the adapted Royal & Derngate building, ahead of audiences being welcomed back on the evening of October 24.
During the tour we had the opportunity to speak to Jo Gordon, chief executive of Northamptonshire Arts Management Trust and its venues – including the Royal & Derngate.
Since the RAAC discovery, she shared their focus has always been reopening as speedily as possible. Not only to welcome back touring shows, but local performances like Kinky Boots.
The Kinky Boots cast had been rehearsing for six months and Jo said: “The thought of not being able to deliver it was a real worry.”
This year was due to be the Derngate’s celebratory 40th year. “It wasn’t quite the present we were hoping for,” said Jo. “But it has made us all the more nostalgic of what we’ve been able to do over the 40 years and why it’s so important to get back up and running.”
There will be many “celebratory moments” over the coming months, in the lead up to one of the most “important times” of the year – panto.
Jo hoped it would be a “buzzy” opening night for Kinky Boots, as those who know the cast know just how much work has gone into the performance.
“It’s huge,” Jo added. “One of the exciting things about Derngate, across its 40 years, is the mix between big touring professional productions and local people on stage.
“Knowing the effort, time and care that’s been put into a production of real quality is really exciting.”
The Derngate team has been involved in supporting the production of Kinky Boots and were very keen to get back to it.
The staff have been working at the Derngate doing maintenance jobs since the building temporarily closed and Jo said: “They want to be doing their day jobs, creating beautiful lighting and working backstage.
“The buzz of having an audience back is really special for everybody.”
Though the Royal & Derngate was fortunately not closed for as long as they have experienced before, Jo shared it has been a “difficult” time for them all – as they have been “chomping at the bit” to get back to what they love.
The team is pleased the experience is no different when audiences are in the building, but asks that everyone be patient with them and the anticipated extra queueing.
“There will be people who are used to certain ways in and they’ll have to adjust, but everybody in the reopening of the Royal has been super supportive,” said Jo.
She was pleased to see people excited to enter the building a new way, using routes and tiny corridors that would have been used in Victorian times.
“We’ve become too used to this lovely spacious foyer,” Jo added, jokingly. “We’ve had some absolutely astonishing feedback. People have been so generous in taking the time to email us the morning after.”
Since the reopening of the Royal, customers have got in contact to commend the helpfulness of particular staff members.
Jo said: “That’s great to get back to the team as it’s unsettling when everything’s different. To be getting direct feedback that’s so strong is really useful.”
The CEO believes most customers were fine with the rescheduling of shows as it reminded them of the pandemic – which she said is still “too recent in the memory”.
The team is pleased most shows have been rescheduled to future dates with no issues, and many visitors have been happy to transfer their tickets over.
The Derngate has been taken aback by the generous donations of businesses, particularly building companies and landscape gardeners, while the changes were being made to the building.
Materials for the newly installed hoardings and plants for the grounds have been supplied out of the kindness of their hearts.
“Gestures like that are really special at times like this,” said Jo. “We spend a lot of time thinking about our role in the community, but it’s how the community has our back.”
As highlighted in the previous story ahead of reopening, all audiences are being kept separate from any areas impacted by RAAC – and Jo wants everyone to know they are “not taking any risks”.
Jo hopes that once people have visited once, they will be reassured of the changes.
She was pleased that since the reopening of the Royal auditorium, nobody has expressed their nervousness about the RAAC and everyone was more focused on making an anticipated return to the theatre.