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For an amateur theatre company to be financially stable and well supported it needs the right volunteers in key roles, as well as an awareness of when to call in the experts, says Clare Simpson.

Productoin shot - two men on sofa
'The God of Carnage' by Yasmina Reza at Lyceum Theatre Oldham

Lyceum Theatre Oldham (LTO), an amateur theatre company in Greater Manchester, is financially stable and well supported by audiences, achieving over 95% capacity for the majority of its five productions per year. It is run by a group of volunteer managers, all respected in their various fields of professional work, who share a love for theatre and performance. Each manager runs their own area of the theatre (front of house, marketing, back stage, finance), with two artistic directors who propose the productions, plus a chairperson.

Calling in the experts

This set-up is not unusual in the amateur theatre sector. We are able to work together, reach a concensus, respect each other’s views and create an enjoyable and productive working environment. This may sound like we have simply happened on the right people in the right jobs, and while that is certainly the case, there have been changes in personnel recently and yet the ethos of the team remains intact. We all know where our strengths lie and when to call in the experts.

We still need new volunteers with DIY, people and computer skills to help with set building, box office and sound and lighting operations

A case in point is in marketing. Although there is a theatre professional (box office and IT) among the volunteer managers, a few years ago he recognised the need to call in paid help. Audiences were dropping as was income due to disruptive local construction work and tough economic factors. The management team, already committed to spending a substantial amount on new seating in the auditorium, needed to ensure stability and encourage growth.

As a result, I was appointed and became the only paid member of the management team. I have a theatre marketing background, having spent nine years as Marketing Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and then working for arts centres and touring companies. Originally, the idea was for me to research audiences, critically analyse and develop marketing materials and plans and then hand over to volunteers after a year. Four years later, I am still here, working closely with the volunteers and helping to develop new initiatives.

Volunteer motivation

Each member of the management team and each volunteer is motivated by a love of theatre. It‘s the same in the professional theatre world – no one is in it to earn their fortune and retire early. But what LTO volunteers feel is a genuine connection and sense of belonging as they are made to feel their contribution makes a difference. Treats for them include free nights of entertainment and food – but that’s not why they do it.

In a recent survey we carried out, 74% of people who said they were interested in volunteering would do it to have fun; 56% to spend time with like-minded people; 52% to give back to their community; and 48% to feel useful. Volunteers clearly want more out of their experience than just freebies. In fact, for an organisation like LTO, free tickets would probably lead to a financial crisis if we gave them away to all our volunteers.

Volunteer recruitment

But there is a crisis. The current Chair has taken personal control of volunteer recruitment because there are not enough volunteers to do all the jobs. Many of the volunteers are retired but it doesn‘t mean they have a lot of time – looking after grandchildren, caring for other relatives and even working beyond the acknowledged retirement age means there are fewer of them with time on their hands. Despite a recruitment drive that includes advertising and leaflet drops, we still need new volunteers with DIY, people, and computer skills to help with set-building, box office, and sound and lighting operations during production weeks and rehearsals.

Running an organisation using just volunteers is always a risk, especially once the original motivated group has stepped down. Key to making it work is respect for each other, the right people in the key roles and accepting help where needed. Our confidence, partly thanks to our financial stability, organisational awareness and strong leadership, is palpable.

Clare Simpson is a part-time marketing professional at Lyceum Theatre Oldham.

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Photo of Clare Simpson