Upstairs at the Western 1 Year On

A year ago Upstairs at The Western had a change of management. The old guard of 'Off The Fence' moved on to other things and David Bell and his team stepped in to take over running the venue.

I met up with David to see how he thought the first 12 months had gone. He said: 'We were told we'd taken over the theatre after the end of October 2016, so we had two months basically to get ready for the spring 2017 season. Because Off The Fence knew they were leaving, they hadn't booked anything. So, we had a manic run around to try find touring companies at the last minute. Thankfully we inherited people like Jess Green for Find The Right Words, but I think in our first season, the six months, January to June 17, I think we managed to get about 25 shows and by and large they weren't too bad. I think artistically there were a couple in there that probably weren't as good as we'd hoped they were going to be but on the whole we managed to attract quality shows from the off.'

Paul Towers: I am someone who is here on a very regular basis and I thought you did amazingly well. I know that first season was quite heavy on spoken words and poetry. I guess that was because it was easy to book in at short notice.

David Bell: To get the high ranking jobs and stuff like Gratiano and The Unknown Soldier we had to pay really high guarantees which we didn't meet. So that cost us money. I think our first season was a bit of a scramble, we didn't really get to the printers with a good brochure because we didn't have time. So we just had to get a pamphlet. It was just really getting used to running the business and all the behind the scene stuff, but I think, yeah, it's got a lot easier. Autumn '17 has been a lot easier.

PT: The lineup of stuff that you've had this autumn, I think it's been phenomenal. A very broad range. I don't know whether it?s a deliberate thing, trying to cater for everybody or is it a question of working out what brings the punters in?

DB: Off The Fence were a larger drama-based company and they are also a producing company that used to produce their own shows and toured with them. But our bid was all about turning Upstairs at The Western into a multi-genre arts venue for the West End of Leicester. So it's a case of widening the genres, branching out more into music, comedy, a bit more poetry, film, those kind of things, but also increasing the volume. So the previous owners did about 50 shows a year and our business plan aims for about 150 shows a year. Because we are closed in July and August, that's about 15 a month or 3 a week.

In the autumn 2017 season I think we hit about 50 shows. Some of those are workshops, comedy workshops, but around 40 to 50 shows over 4 months, that's about 10 a month. Next season, January to June '18, we are looking at about 100 shows.

So we're widening the type of shows we're doing. The type of thing we've gotten here is a lot broader than it has been before, but we are expanding it in what can be a crowded marketplaces. There is loads of comedy coming in. We're coming back big time in the Leicester Comedy Festival this year.

It's all part of our expansion and we have just got to go through the growing pains to kind of get there really. The change in the nature of the place is deliberate to make it multi-genre art, that sort of thing.

PT: The fact that you don't have to consider putting your own productions on makes it a little bit easier because it frees up a lot of time?

DB: It does, yeah. The closest we are coming to that is in the second part of our bid was about helping in the development of new artists and new companies. So somebody comes to us and says, I've got a play and I want to put it on the stage. We will help them as much as we can to develop and stage it. So we've got a writer who is putting a play on in February 2018. She's got a script which she wrote herself and  she's doing all the auditions here. We had a guy who wrote in and said I want to direct a play so we introduced the two to each other and they are getting on like a house on fire and they are now co-producing the show.

We will put it out for 5, we will label it as a work in progress. We had a really young company last year who did Voices of Reason. What they lacked in kind of artistic expertise, they really made for it in terms of energy and enthusiasm that just needs channelling over the years.

PT:  I said in my review for that that the script needed a little bit of trimming, cutting the end off, but there was lots of very good elements within it that work very well. They just need a script editor, I think. But they make good use of the off-stage space.

DB: Yes, they did. It's what we would call a safe space. There's a big difference between doing something in your bedroom and getting on to a big stage which is really intimidating and Upstairs at The Western is like a stepping stone between the two, so it's a nice safe space.

David and his team obviously have huge ambitions for Upstairs at The Western with a great  number of shows booked in for the Leicester Comedy Festival

Full details of all future shows at this vibrant venue can be found at Upstairs At The Western.

Among the many innovations watch out for the monthly Silent Film Nights when old b/w silent movies are shown. Another great novelty is the monthly Choir Night, the first on Wednesday 24th January. Full details of these and all shows are at the Upstairs At The Western's website

Paul Towers