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Last year Leicester’s Curve Theatre increased its turnover by 30%. Chris Stafford discusses touring, hospitality and rejecting capital funding.

Photo of nuns on stage in Sister Act musical

Tristram Kenton

When I took over the helm of Curve Theatre in Leicester last October, mentors and peers offered me tips and advice, but one thing that stuck most came from my predecessor Fiona Allan whose parting words to me were: “Don’t f*** it up.”

Our raison d’etre will always be to make theatre and we don’t want to be a conference venue or bar with a theatre on the side

Fiona had been a terrific mentor to me during my time as Executive Producer and she had worked tirelessly with the team to grow a thriving business and establish Curve as a nationally recognised producing theatre.

With this in mind, last month we released our annual report detailing the best results the theatre has achieved in its eight-year history. We increased turnover by 30% to £10.2m, sold 60,000 more tickets, and engagement across learning, community and artist development increased significantly.

Work on tour

A major development for us has been our work on tour. When I arrived three years ago we had a few touring successes, but taking work on the road wasn’t part of the fabric of our artistic output. I spent a lot of time developing partnerships to exploit our work and last autumn we launched Curve on Tour.

Since September we have taken four Made at Curve co-productions on tour either with commercial partners or independently. Curve on Tour has been a game changer both financially and for our reputation. We always look at the touring potential of a show and while it isn’t always possible, touring is at the forefront of our mind instead of being an add-on.

Secondary income streams

Off our stages we have repositioned the role that secondary income streams play in our theatre and have taken a renewed approach to developing income through events, conferencing and hospitality. Our raison d’etre will always be to make theatre and we don’t want to be a conference venue or bar with a theatre on the side.

In the past 12 months, I have appointed two new senior management posts to oversee the development of these strands of our business and already we are seeing results with artistic and events teams working closely together to maximise the use of our spaces.

This is helped massively by artistic planning taking us up to 2020 and launching a new events-focused website and new initiatives such as our ‘Set for Events’ offer, which enables events to take place on top of our stage sets. By the end of the first financial quarter we have exceeded last year’s income from events and it is looking likely we will be reporting our best year to date in this area.

Rejecting funding

In autumn last year we were awarded a £500k capital grant from Arts Council England (ACE) to refurbish our café, bar and install a destination brasserie. The ACE grant was to support one of a number of options we were exploring, and while this injection of investment would have made a huge difference we decided not to accept the money as I felt we could do the improvements in a different way.

We will be paying for the refurbishment ourselves. Through a phased approach, we will focus on getting each area right rather than overhauling all our hospitality provision at the same time. I want us to have a thriving brasserie one day, and perhaps some may consider me playing it too safe, but we are not in the position to open a brasserie yet. We need to know we have got the hospitality essentials spot on before we start to grow things even further. The refurb will enable us to get things right and will also give us the confidence to explore new ideas in time.

Returning the grant was one of the most difficult decisions I have taken in the past year, but instinctively I know this was the right call and someone else will benefit from the £500k.

The past year has been rewarding for me as the new CEO. We still have a long way to go, but things are moving in the right direction. Whenever I meet Fiona I feel quietly confident that I have stuck to my pledge.

Chris Stafford is CEO of Curve Theatre.

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Photo of Chris Stafford