Liz and Laney - Oral Memories transcript

Pomegranate Theatre Oral History

 

Colin McCall – Interviewer

History of Liz Woodall and Laney Turner – 30 November 2009

 

The topic is memories of the Pomegranate Theatre.  Liz and Laney are long standing members of the Pomegranate staff. 

Interviewer

Laney let’s start at the very beginning if we can, how did you come to be working at the theatre and what are some of your memories of those very early years.

Liz

Well I’d just finished my degree and I took this in English and Contemporary American Studies and this included some drama work and I’d got involved in the Arena Theatre which was part of the University of Wolverhampton and I had decided that I wanted to do an Arts Administration masters but the average age for people on that degree was 27 and I was only 21 so I wanted a job anywhere in theatre just to get some experience and the job in the box office at the Pomegranate came up and I found out about it as my grandparents lived in Chesterfield and I came down for a very brief interview with the theatre manager who told me it was just selling a few tickets.  I think I had to do some mental arithmetic and that was it really and I started Tuesday after August Bank Holiday and six weeks after I had finished my degree.

Interviewer

What year was that?

Liz

August 1984 and I was only planning to stay for a year.

Laney

And I started a week later with the same kind of interview where you just have to sell tickets and that’s it really.

Liz

But it wasn’t really was it.

 

Liz

It was a very complicated manual system and actually Laney and I worked … it was very complicated to start with because both of the cashiers left at the same time within a week of each other so we had a very short training period and then were thrown in at the deep-end but because we were both new it meant that we could adapt the system.  At the end of our shift in the morning you had to count up the number of tickets you had sold by the little paper stubs off the tickets and you could tell the difference between a full price ticket and a concessionary ticket based on the coloured pencil strip across the middle of the ticket, and when we started they were all on long spikes and you just had a heap of stubs and you had to spread them out all over the place whilst you worked out if it was a full price, child or concessionary ticket or a publicity voucher, all the different things.  We had a bar table that we used for all these ticket and that was out work surface, a bar table. The ticket books were on a set of ordinary book shelves which had been adapted with 6” nails hammered in and bits of tongue and groove shelving to make the shelves shallower but they weren’t deep enough so when the ticket books were new you had them spine out with the date showing but when it was a busy show, that meant that the weight was all on the spine, so you had to put them in backwards.  So we very quickly made friends with Stuart Basson, the Stage Manager and persuaded him into designing some new ticket shelves so that we had some individual shelves that supported the ticket books.  We started clipping the ticket stubs together with a paper clip and writing on the back so 2 + 1 for two full price and one concession and then the amount of money and that meant that it was much simpler to go through at the end of the day and count up what you had done.  So it was little things like that that we were able to change.  It was the till and well, it was a very narrow till shelf and it used to jump off.  Did it ever jump off with you?  If you put a lot of change in it was a bit recalcitrant – it was slightly “Open all Hours” and I once pushed the button and it had loads of change in front and it flew off the shelf.  So it was all slightly comic cuts. 

I think both of us, if we’d not had each other that first week, because the first Saturday night was so busy, queues right up the corridor, because in those days the box office was in the bar area and I think if we hadn’t had each other we would probably both walked away from it wouldn’t we. It worked very well.

Laney

Yes, because you weren’t treading on anybody’s toes if you wanted to change something you know if you go into something where somebody else has got a system, it’s actually quite difficult, you have to be careful going in and changing things.  We just decided how we wanted to run it.

Interviewer

So who was the Theatre Manager whose system you were improving at the time?

Laney

It was Derek Colman who had already been there for 20 odd years.

Liz  

It was 31 years when he left so it was perhaps only 20 something years.

Interviewer

What memories do you have of Derek?

Liz

A one off.  He was a brilliant boss in that he knew what he wanted, he didn’t really get involved, he had problems with his hearing, which was quite funny because he was very selective in what he heard and what he didn’t hear. But you always knew he was there if there was a problem.  My first Christmas I had miscalculated a charge on a party booking and when the shows started you had to fill in what you call a door sheet which had all the tickets you sold in advance, all the tickets you sold on the door and you had to count up on the paper plan and make sure that your tallies fitted and we had twenty fewer empty seats that we should have had so that was me in floods of tears and he called me a silly something or other and said put them down as comps and don’t do it again.  He didn’t treat it as it if wasn’t serious but he treated it as if it wasn’t the end of the world.

Interviewer

Comps being complimentary tickets?

Laney

Yes.  He was a wonderful manager in that, as Liz says there was a line which you could go to with Derek but he was always there for you.

Liz

Yes he wasn’t touchy feely but he was extremely sympathetic, if anybody on the staff had personal problems of any kind, I’m not saying he would get involved sorting them out, but he was extremely understanding in changing arrangements for people he was very good with you wasn’t he.

Laney

When I started Lucy, my daughter, who is now 29 was 4 when I started and then it was fine because my husband and I worked obviously different shifts, he worked full time but he was able to pick Lucy up and my mum looked after and babysat but after a while she moved so it meant that I would have had to leave, but I went into Derek and said I’m sorry I have to leave because sometimes I will occasionally need to pick Lucy up from school and he said well you can just go home, pick her up from school, take her to your mums and come back to work and obviously make the time up.  That was wonderful because I seriously thought that I would have to leave and he was really good, but having said all that – though he was really wonderful – you also … he was not strict, that’s not really the word, but after the show, the show went up at 7.30, he was down at 7.35 wanting the figures so he was quite demanding. In those days he had high expectations, which was wonderful really, because it was really good for us, because he did expect, and obviously it was all manual then, in those days, so you haven’t got computers, he didn’t believe in calculators, I don’t think we had one when we first started until we got one but he wouldn’t pay for batteries, so when the batteries went we had to buy them ourselves.  I said to him – Derek it’s all right you wanting your figures and giving me five minutes and wanting to sell lots of tickets but you also want it to be right because once these figures were filled in we had to be, and wanted to be, exact so it was very rare we were wrong.  We were quite proud of that weren’t we?

Interviewer

So in the early days, that we are talking about, I mean on the professional side of the theatre, on the production side would it be similar to how it is now, you know a mixture of touring companies coming in and some community groups so how were the shows possibly different to now?

Liz

The mix was probably similar, although the way the shows worked was slightly different, we used to have full weeks of dancing schools so there were often quite big gaps in the professional season and that’s changed over the years so the proportions probably haven’t changed but the layout has.  The first couple of years that Laney and I were here we didn’t have a summer break, we only had a couple weeks and we had like a professional rep through the summer.

Laney

SAGA used to come.

Liz SAGA used to come every Thursday, but we had a play on where I think somebody had to say ‘bloody’ and they all left in disgust, no I think it was Stags and Hens so I think they probably said more than bloody.

Interviewer

The audience left in disgust?

Liz

Yes the audience left in disgust.  SAGA stopped booking because they had lots of complaints about this one particular play.  What we did have was bigger tours.  It was the years before the Lyceum was refurbished so The Crucible was putting its own shows on, Derby Playhouse was putting on its own shows and there were a lot more touring companies, and although our theatres were what was called a number two touring house we used to get number one tours and these are tours that would normally be doing bigger theatres and which now would go to places like The Lyceum.  They used to come to us because it’s cheaper to come to a smaller theatre for a week and make less money that it is to pay the actors and store the scenery on a week out of the tour so we actually had some quite decent names and some very good tours in.  But most of those companies have gone now.  It’s just changed completely and now when you look round at other theatres the makeup of what is going round has changed enormously over the past 10 – 15 years where a lot of it is large scale musicals which we couldn’t take even if they wanted to come here.

Interviewer

So was Derek the only manager you worked for or did you work for other managers?

Liz

Derek retired in 1994, they extended his contract, he was actually 65 in March 1994 and they extended his contract for 6 months whilst they decided what to do about him retiring because it had come as a bit of a surprise (you are going to have to edit that out) and we spent the next 10 years deciding what to do about Derek retiring.

Liz

Some money had been forthcoming from the Arts Council for Chesterfield Borough to engage an Arts Officer with the remit of providing an arts strategy for the Borough and a lady called Jill Warren was engaged to do that and she started off working at the Winding Wheel but then it was decided that she could take over the programming of the theatre and she came over to run the theatre and it was at that time that came out of the box office and was made House Manager.  Jill stayed until 1998 and then we had Ian Whiteside who was set up at Arts Manager and he stayed for another couple of years and then he left.  We have had various changes within the council and within the department and then really those of us that were left in 2001we have just really stayed on and I was made Manager in 2006. 

Laney

You were Acting Manager for a long time weren’t you before you were officially made Manager.

Liz

Yes, well there wasn’t anybody else here shall we say.

Interviewer

So from box office to manager over a number of years and presumably in that time being a small theatre as well, both of you have had other roles.  What kind of roles do you have to carry out to keep this type of theatre going?

Liz

Well I suppose the first thing I did, because the box office, because there was only two of us in the box office, Laney and I, we only did 30 hours a week each so it wasn’t actually a full time job and I started helping out with publicity in 1987 and that’s moved in through publicity and marketing to house management and on to management and as I’ve moved on, Laney has also moved on to publicity. 

Laney

When Liz came out I did less time in the box office, I still worked the same hours but took more of a supervisory role on in the box office and also took some of the business publicity because at that stage she was doing more of the managerial role.

Interviewer

So you watched Liz to know what your next job was going to be is that it.

Laney

I was very happy being Liz’s assistant.

Interviewer

What about the stage technical side, I think you mentioned about being involved with the stage crew.

Liz

Well the thing I have done that Laney hasn’t done is, I was on the stage crew.  A friend of mine came down to Chesterfield to work as wardrobe and I got started working on the stage crew, I think Stuart was perhaps a bit light on bodies as one stage so I used to go on every other Monday when I wasn’t working in the box office I was with the stage crew.  I would unload the wagon and help build the set and I got trained in the lighting so I used to focus the lighting and in the afternoon I would put my uniform on and go in the box office and sell tickets.

Laney

Whilst she was doing this the orchestra pit top was off and I think it was probably when she was helping move the scenery about, when this clatter, cymbals clattering, hen ‘I’m all right’ and it was Liz who had fallen into the orchestra pit but actually had damaged herself, didn’t you.  I mean you were quite lucky really.

Liz

I was lucky.  It turned out I had broken my jaw, but it was a bit like a cartoon.  I was actually doing the lighting, Keith said the lights were off, and the whole of the orchestra pit wasn’t out just the centre of the orchestra pit and I was backing down the stage and talking to him about what he was going to do next and what lights he wanted putting on when I got back to the lighting box, which is at the back of the auditorium so I had to come off the front of the stage and I just misjudged how far over I was and I turned round and walked forwards off the front of the stage into the orchestra pit and it was just, in my head it was funny, it was like a cartoon when they walk off a cliff.  It’s that moment when their legs are going in the air. So it made me laugh but then I heard all this thundering about and it was Keith and Stuart running about on stage trying to put the lights on, hence me going ‘I’m all right’.

Interviewer

So, a funny memory thinking back but rather painful at the time.

Liz

Well I hadn’t really hurt myself so I had bounced off a drum, and it was hilarious actually, but I ruined the drum skin.  Bus what I had actually done was bang my chin and as it turned out I had broken the neck of my jaw, which has caused me a lot of problems since but it wasn’t something they picked up on the x-ray or anything but I was most annoyed because I had to lie down in hospital for observation for two days and that was worse than any pain.  I wanted to just get on.

Interviewer

Right Liz and Laney in one sense you are both celebrating your silver theatre anniversary, if I can put it that way and across all those years there are probably a lot of happy memories but there may be one or two not so happy.  Can you, off the top of your head, pick out, say, happy memories, something that particularly reminds you of a good thing in your experience here during those 25 years.

Liz

Well I met my husband here.  Laney and I have been extremely lucky working together and there have been some really difficult times but on the whole it’s been a fabulous place to work because it’s a small team and for the most part people get on, care about each other and care about the place and that’s what makes it work no matter how challenging the times are.

Laney

As Liz says, because it is a really small team it was just like an extended family and Derek was really funny, he used to come in at 6 o’clock and more often than not I would be out of the box office because by that time I was prepared for the show and I was probably stood next to the bar having a chat and he would walk in and just look over the handrail and I would think ‘oh my God’ and rush back into the box office, he used to do that every time.  He used to call me very dizzy.

Liz

He used to come down to have a look at the figures and say ‘oh you’re not trying – oh yes you are – very’. Then he would say ‘oh well, better open up and show willing’, every night.  He was uncanny, if it was a busy show he used to say anything over so much, you can keep, and you knew he would be right to within £10 or under so you never reach it.  He was brilliant wasn’t he and it was his commitment to the place that he passed on to us and lots of other things.  When we first came under direct council control other people’s attitudes in different departments to budgets and things was very surprising to use because not when we started but when Derek had two sessions at the theatre and when he came back the second time it was in very difficult financial circumstances and they had got to the stage where you didn’t get a new pen unless you took your other one back to him and it wasn’t like that when Derek was there but that carefulness, his prudence, stayed with us.  It was great training because I had no financial training whatsoever other than what I had picked up from Derek, which seems to work okay.

Interviewer

Across the years we have been talking about obviously if one thinks about the Pomegranate one knows that some of the resident artists, if one can put it that way here, have been around a long time as well, though some of those are locally based and some are further afield.  How did those come in to your lives, how did people like George, Damian and John and Karen and all those, when did you first make contact with those? Where they already on the theatre circuit?

Liz

None of them were here before us but Adrian Lloyd-James who first came here in 1985 in Rattle of a Simple Man for Colin McIntyre, he’s been here sort of ever since and most of them came with Colin McIntyre, who’d been the artistic director at the theatre in the 1960’s and was obviously a very good friend of Derek’s and he still is a producer and he used to bring a lot of shows in and that’s where a lot of these people learned their trade really as it was the closest thing to rep when rep was disappearing and Karen and John and Adrian all started with him.  Patrick Kearns first came here with Colin as well but not until 1994, he’s quite a new comer and Bruce James also started as an actor with a previous producer who was coming in when we started and now brings the pantomime to us.  So we have got those same people running through as sort of part of the extended family in a way, they are like the cousins you see at Christmas sort of thing that keep turning up, it’s great.

Laney

Well we’ve known them for a long time and we remember them when they were very young.  Karen, I remember her when she first started and Damian was only very young.

Liz

Damian was very young because he still is only very young,

Laney

Yes that’s right.

Liz

So it’s seeing them grow and going off and doing other things and they have a real fondness for the theatre and they, certainly as producers, give us more, because of that, they give more to the theatre than the normal run of a company coming in on a purely financial basis because they have an investment in the continuation of it really.

Interviewer

Picking up on the extended family theme for a moment how, over those years, have the audiences changed over that time?  How are audiences now compared to when you first started?

Liz

The size of the audiences have grown, I mean the matinee on Saturdays used to be … that was funny, I mean it was funny but it was scary because Derek wouldn’t have been around, I don’t think Derek was around in the afternoons for the matinees.  We would have had to tell the customers that the show had been cancelled because there were probably four on stage and only three in the audience.

Laney

And that was Eddie.  Where did Eddie come from – Preston?

Liz

 Eddie came from Oldham on a Saturday and Mr and Mrs Bonnaud came up from Leicester. An elderly couple who came from Leicester and they would come early and do their shopping and have their lunch.  So they would arrive and then you would be – I wonder if Alice is coming from Brimington, because if Alice comes from Brimington then we can do it because there’s only four in the cast. There would be more in the audience than on stage. We used to cancel a lot of matinees when they were at 2.30 and then we moved them to 4.30 and they built up but then they started to drop off again because the bus services declined over the years and the shows were finishing after the day time bus so we’ve done a lot of juggling to keep the matinee audience but it is much better than it used to be.  I think it is a little bit harder for me to judge now because I can only go by numbers. When Laney and I worked in the box office we knew the customers and we knew that the same people were coming all the time.  I think the audience base is much larger now so you have a core of them that are a little bit younger.

Laney

I do think it was quite an older audience when we started generally wasn’t it and I think the age range seems to be coming down a bit.  So you still have your older audience but you probably have more of a mid-range now.

Liz

Although it’s difficult to tell because a lot of the people who are old now have been coming since we were here and they were probably mid-age, when you are only 21 everyone seems old don’t they.

Interviewer

So what about the types of shows themselves, I mean what has always run well here at the Pomegranate?

Liz

Well when we first came thrillers were the thing, you could always sell thrillers, you could always sell an Agatha Christie.  That has changed, its comedies now.  People have always liked comedies but I think it is probably with Damien doing so well and his audiences, that’s the biggest standard audience that we get and people want more of that.

Laney

Musicals too.

Liz

Yes musicals but that is two separate audiences in a way because that’s more the outer audience.  My programming story – it’s difficult because you try to get a balance but sometimes you end up with not a very good balance and I think of the first spring season that I’ve done, programmed by myself, ended up, I think it only had one comedy in it and I was in the bar talking about something and a lady from the office came down and said there is a gentleman on the pone who wants to talk to you about programming.  So I thought it was someone who wanted to bring a show in and I picked up the phone and said who I was and basically got – your programmes rubbish!  That was the comment.  Okay!  So that’s the hardest thing because you actually don’t know what’s going to go in it and quite often you are surprised by what does do well and doesn’t do well and you can’t always know.

Interviewer

Then again in terms of doing well and community contacts are there now more local groups use the theatre – more or less or about the same?

Liz

I think probably about the same.  Quite a few dancing schools have stopped performing as the dance teachers, owners of the schools have retired but we’ve got more musical groups, more musical societies coming in than we used to have.

Laney

They do very well don’t they?

Liz

Yes the youth groups.

Interviewer

What’s the history of the youth group whilst we are touching on that?

Liz

The Pomegranate Youth Theatre itself started as a result of a summer school that Gill Warren, who was the Arts Officer, organised for Carol Copeland to do with Sheila Young in, I think it was probably 1995 and the young people who took part in that wanted to carry on and it went to the YMCA and when Carol came to work for as Arts Projects Officer it was joined together with the YMCA, then the YMCA closed and it all came over to us and became the Pomegranate Youth Theatre.  So it’s a separate organisation really but part funded by the Borough, but Chesterfield has numerous dancing schools and there are a lot of young people’s musical theatre groups, particularly Directions and Inspirations both of which came out of previously existing dancing schools.  They have actually taken over, there was another came that came called Gateway and they started from Heanor Gate School and Spotlight which were a Matlock based company and they’ve sort of been taken over by … they were slightly younger.  What we’ve got now is the very young group and the older operatic and Gilbert and Sullivan groups but there isn’t really anybody in that mid-group although Inspirations are more that because they have a Young Inspirations and they have Inspirations which is in their 20s and 30s.

Interviewer

Now we’ve talked a bit about your links with the administrative side of theatre, we’ve talked a little bit about your links with actors and community groups and so on, the one thing we haven’t talked about so far is your reflections on the place itself, ie the building, and everyone who comes to the Pomegranate from a professional point of view, it has its ups and its downs.  What about the building, what are your memories of that, how has it changed in the past 25 years that you have been here?

Liz

It’s changed quite a lot actually, some bits haven’t changed much but when we first came, what we call the house, which is now dressing rooms, technical offices and it will be the archive store was literally a derelict house and we used to keep the semi-used ticket books in boxes in the bath, in the bathroom of the house because it was the driest place in the house. So that was the caretaker’s house wasn’t it?  The box office has changed beyond all recognition because apart from going from manual to computerised, it has had two changes.  It was enlarged down at the bottom of the stairs in the bar and then it was moved into the foyer where the sweet counter used to be.  We used to have a huge sweet counter. 

Laney

The box office, when we started, was where Carol’s office is now but very tiny.  Quite dark really, so that’s changed.

Liz

The and everywhere is much lighter, front of house, because the bar area was closed off because there is only one window now but there used to be, it used to have dark red curtains all the way round it, and there was various seating all the way round so opening that performance space up and painting the walls, instead of having that dark curtaining round has made it more welcoming and then opening up of the back of what was the sweet counter to make the new box office, that’s brought light onto the foyer so I think it’s a more welcoming building than it was.  The auditorium had netting over it because the ceiling was falling down and it’s a long time since that was done but that was a very big piece of work, we were shut for 3 – 4 months in 1989 when that was done.

Laney

We were re-roofed as well, at that particular time they were talking about us extending into the library that was there before the museum was there and having rehearsals there, but because they found that the roof was so bad that it needed a complete re-roof, all the money that would have been spent had to go on that.  That was a major thing wasn’t it.

Interviewer

It was a bit of a Fourth Bridge syndrome wasn’t it?

Liz

Yes and always will be.  I mean we’ve had adaptations like the wheelchair lift in the bar, there were two steps in the foyer so you couldn’t even get up the foyer without steps so there’s a ramp entrance to the building, ramp up to the auditorium, there are toilets to the back of the auditorium.  So things have changed quite a lot.

Interviewer

Going back to the audience for the moment has it changed in fashion terms in any way.  One is conscious occasionally on Saturday nights here, still seeing one or two people in more formal attire and I guess that might have been more prevalent a few years ago.  Has it always been a relatively informally dressed audience at the Pomegranate?

Laney

I think it probably has.

Liz

It’s always been a bit mixed hasn’t it?  Although I do remember someone asking me what they should wear, it was the first time they had been to the theatre and they asked what to wear, though that would have been about 20 years ago now.  But I did say just be comfortable, it’s not posh we don’t stand on ceremony.  I think it’s nice that people can still dress up I mean I like to dress up for the theatre although I don’t always when I’m coming here ‘cos it’s like work but I think …

Laney

I think probably in the early days more people dressed up but there was always that mix.

Liz

But the world has changed and people don’t dress up generally speaking do they now.

Laney

It is more relaxed, even at work, people at work are allowed to go without ties and things these days, so things have changed.

Interviewer

So you have been involved with live theatre in a sense for some 25 years.  I mean some people may not have even experienced live theatre in this day and age when you think of TV and computers and virtual reality and so on.  I mean how do you feel yourselves about like theatre, what’s the real value of live theatre, how does it speak to you, how do you think it has spoken to the people who come here over the years?

Liz

I got involved in theatre not because I wanted to act but because some of the biggest highs I’ve had in my life have been from live theatre and I wanted to be part of communicating that to other people.  Not every medium is going to do it for everybody not every form of every medium is going to do it for everybody.  But if you can keep the options open for people if out of a group of 300 people that come to see a performance, it there’s one or two people in there that go out moved that’s probably what it’s about it’s about the hairs standing up on the back of your neck for whatever reason.  I think the fact that theatre live performance has been around for ever I think it’s important to keep it going and it’s never been for me about how much money it makes or how many people it appeals to because I don’t think popularity is necessarily a sign of quality and I would rather have 40 people come and see something and go away thinking that was absolutely fantastic than 500 people go away saying that’s passed a bit of time on.  I don’t see theatre as that, not that it doesn’t have that element about it; but for me it’s striving to bring that experience to people.

Laney

And when I started I didn’t come because it was the theatre, I needed to work so, and I had virtually no experience of theatre, but over the years I’ve come to love the Pomegranate and what it’s done for me is, I am able to come to a lot of the productions obviously now being marketing I need to see lots of different things, but people need to try it because it’s amazing what will move you and it needs to be accessible so prices need to be reasonable to people can try it, which I believe that we do.  Obviously letting people know – it’s important to get it out there to let people know what we’re doing.

Liz

I think we’re better at that than we used to be, not as good as we’d like to be but better than we were.  It is important as Laney says to give people some choice, some options, that’s why we do things here that you wouldn’t, because  there are people who come to the Pomegranate who aren’t theatre goers, but are Pomegranate theatre goers so bringing my classic example bringing Kiss of the Spider Woman to the lady from Brimington, who has been coming for 40 years and for her to be moved by that, if you had presented her with a – would you come and see this -  she would have said no I’m not interested in a play about political prisoners and you know relationships between men in a South American prison, that’s not for me.  But because what she does is come to the Pomegranate Theatre and that is one of the things she sees, you are introducing that because we are all closed to things and we do all make choices about what we can and can’t do and that’s why I think we are really fortunate to do what we do and I hope we will be able to continue doing it.

Laney

I think the patrons are … I do think the people who come week in and week out are fortunate because they are not having to see the same kind of thing and because, as Liz says, they probably wouldn’t choose some of the more obscure plays, they are the ones that I get much more out of and that surprise me and you know, for me that’s what’s been wonderful as well as enjoying what I do working for the theatre.

Interviewer

So we can obviously expect that the Pomegranate will continue in its format of some inspiration some education and a fair bit of pleasure and recreation.

Liz

I do hope so.

Interviewer

Well Liz and Laney on behalf of Chesterfield Theatre Friends, thank you very much.

Liz and Laney 31.08.2012

Laney and Liz at their joint 'Leaving Do' 31st August 2012

 

Liz In Box Office 1994 001

Liz in the Box Office - Autumn 1994