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Shakespeare North Playhouse is a brand-new theatre modelled on a traditional Shakespearean era playhouse. Melanie Lewis shares the challenges of bringing this ambitious regeneration project to life. 

Shakespeare North Playhouse

Steve Samosa

In 2006, a conversation between architect Dr Nicholas Helm and Professor Richard Wilson sparked the idea that led to Prescot's Shakespeare North Playhouse. A project this unique required a huge amount of research, planning and ultimately funding to get it off the ground. But, fast forward 16 years and we’re weeks away from opening our doors on 15 July and welcoming visitors, audiences, artists and creatives from across the globe.  

Shakespeare North Playhouse will be as much about the activities taking place in the learning centre or the café as it will be about what’s on our stages. The ambition is for audiences to travel regionally, nationally and internationally but it’s crucial that locals feel this is their building. We want it to be a hub for local communities. 

We want to challenge, surprise and bring joy with a broad range of programming. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience culture but we are acutely aware of barriers that limit access for many, one of them financial. So, we have ensured that Pay What You Decide tickets will be available for every production, half of them earmarked for Prescot residents.  

Taking the learning outside the theatre walls

We will be bold, brave and inclusive in our approach to all our work.  We want to bring in voices that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Initiatives like our Open Calls for A Midsummer Night’s Dream will help us achieve this. We’ll take learning outside and ensure it is cross-generational, with regular workshops to spark debate and educate.  

Cultural projects are transformative; you can already see the impact of Shakespeare North Playhouse on the region. It is not just the building but about creating a place which serves the needs and aspirations of the people, artists and educators who use it. 

Inevitably plans have changed over time as our understanding of how the building and organisation will be used have evolved. However, the vision has remained steadfast. 

Part of Knowsley’s placemaking and regeneration strategy

The build began at the start of the pandemic, at a time when pressure to keep the arts alive meant funders were focusing their energies on established organisations needing support. Funding and building a capital project in this environment was tough, and it remains so. 

Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council (KMBC) has been visionary throughout. They saw the opportunity, ensured it was realised and changed the fortunes of the area, as  part of their wider placemaking and regeneration strategy. 

Shakespeare North Playhouse offers a range of work and volunteer opportunities, as well as creative opportunities. Local schools will use it to enhance their learning outside the classroom and it is an attraction that will be a driving force in rebranding Prescot as a tourist destination. As a result, Prescot is expected to welcome an additional 140,00 visitors annually. 

Positive impacts from the substantial investment can already be seen. Local spending habits have changed with a 25% increase in spending in the borough from February 2020 to February 2022. And new businesses, such as Pinion and the Lord Strange Pub and Bar have recently opened boosting Prescot High Street’s offer in time for the opening.  

This positive change is incredible when you consider the area faces significant challenges and requires investment; it is the second most economically deprived borough in England. 

A journey of continuing evolution

In our first year, it is probably easier to attract audiences, visitors and partnership as there is great curiosity. But the challenge will be in continuing to engage to create a legacy so that Shakespeare North Playhouse, and Prescot, will be a place to experience culture for generations to come.  

I’m part of a highly skilled team here, including everyone from funders to our Community Curators. Although the opening will be a poignant milestone in our journey, the work will not be complete and nor should it be. We will continue to grow and evolve over the coming years as we listen and respond to all those who cross our threshold.  

With a £40m capital project of this size, anticipation and expectations build over time and there is huge pressure to get it right. There are pre-conceived ideas about how the building looks and who we are as an organisation. 

Alongside these expectations we also have little idea who our audiences will be. We can take an educated guess, but we don’t know. So, as with any new organisation, we need to be agile and adapt. On the flip side, this is an incredible opportunity allowing us to open a conversation where we can invite and spark debate and response from those who engage with us.  

What will success look like?

I have been involved in many capital projects and the one lesson I would pass on is never underestimate how early you need your operational team in the project timeline. That means getting your funding in place in time. Visitor experience, customer service, commercial and marketing professionals bring invaluable knowledge about audience needs. 

None of this have been achieved alone - collaborations and partnerships have been integral. Our community and funders have looked after us, guiding and supporting us throughout the process.  

I always imagine my perfect hypothetical day as a marker of success.  

I’ll be in the café on a Wednesday morning, looking around it full of people from all walks of life with different stories to tell, each one feeling as welcome in the building as the next. Some will have visited the shop for that last minute gift or met a friend for a quick catch-up, others will have travelled further and are discovering Prescot for the first time. 

Quickly my attention will be drawn to the door where a school group will be filing in two-by-two for a workshop. I’ll go backstage and bump into artists rushing to get to rehearsal, stopped in their tracks on seeing the cockpit stage for the first time.  

Later the familiar bleep of ticket scanners will echo through the building as audiences mill around pre-show. I’ll hear snippets of conversations expressing curiosity and joy. 

If I can experience such a day, I’ll know we’re doing something right. Everyone will feel welcome and safe, experiencing Shakespeare North Playhouse in a way that’s most meaningful to them and that will leave a lasting impression.  

Melanie Lewis is Chief Executive of The Shakespeare North Playhouse.

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